Pell Grants for Prisoners: Why Should We Care?

Pell Grants for Prisoners: Why Should We Care?

By Jon Marc Taylor

 They were code words. Employed in the opening salvos of the Reagan Revolution, the irresponsible “unwed mother”, lazy “welfare queen”, parasitic “drug dealer” and dangerous “gang-banger” were not-so-subtle euphemisms for the poor and people of color. The conservative movement’s concerted onslaught on the more inclusive entitlement and social safety net programs inspired by the New Deal era of government commenced, however, against the politically powerless and publicly vilified prisoner.

While the more overt War on Drugs with the attendant abolition of parole, mandatory minimum sentences, and expanded death penalty would take years to enact and for the crushing consequences to be felt, the initial forays against prisoners were fired by Virginia Congressman William Whitehurst in 1982, when he submitted legislation to rollback inmate Pell Grant disbursements. By 1991, senators and representatives from both parties (primarily from the old Confederacy) repeatedly introduced legislation to exclude “any individual who is incarcerated in any federal or state penal institution” from qualifying for Pell Grant assistance. For a decade, the various annual exclusion-fest amendments either did not make it out of their committees or if passed on floor votes, were struck in the joint resolution committees.

 Then in 1991, the primary force behind the eventually successful exclusionary legislation, Senator Jesse Helms, pontificated “the American taxpayers are being forced to pay taxes to provide free college tuitions for prisoners at a time when so many law-abiding, tax-paying citizens are struggling to find enough money to send their children to college.” The following year, Representative Thomas Coleman claimed 100,000 prisoners unrightfully received Pell Grants. And in 1993, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison stated that prisoners “received as much as $200 million in Pell funds.”

 Three weeks earlier, dramatically waving a copy of the Pottstown (PA) Mercury above his head, Congressman Timothy Holden fulminated before the C-SPAN cameras that he was appalled to learn from the newspaper’s (tabloid lurid) reports that prisoners were receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in grants, allowing them free college educations. “There is an obligation to do the best you can to give incarcerated people a chance,” the representative intoned, “but certainly not from a program that has been earmarked for low-income people to educate their children.”

 By 1994, the Texas senator’s and Tennessean Bart Gordon’s House amendments had been attached to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. And in September of that year, President Bill Clinton signed the law that among a plethora of draconian measures resulted in prisoners becoming ineligible for Pell Grant disbursements.

Lies, Distortions, and Facts

During all the downright indignant to self-righteous outrage, the rhetoric demonizing prisoner students to morally justify their expulsion from the Pell Grant program flowed like pabulum. Yet not one rationalizing fact cited was correct. It was diversionary politics at its best, and they were only convicts at their worst.

The fundamental argument advanced by opponents of prisoners receiving Pell Grants was that it was unfair for zero-income prisoners to take limited grants away from poor, law-abiding traditional students. Concomitantly, the tuition soaring, it was becoming harder and harder for the working and middle-class to send their children to university. If “unworthy” prisoner-students were thus barred, the reasoning went, then criminals would be further punished, and a “just” balance would be restored to student funding.

The problem was that reality did not match the political diatribe.

*Forty years ago, when Basic Education Opportunity Grants (later renamed in honor of the sponsoring senator, Clairborne Pell) were created, as a “needs-based” student financial aid program, prisoners were specifically encompassed by the legislation’s sponsors.

Commenting on the then-pending exclusionary legislation in 1994, Senator Pell observed, “the Pell Grant program functions as a quasi-entitlement: A student qualifies for a grant, and the size of the grant depends on the availability of appropriations. Thus, the child of a police officer would not be denied a grant in favor of a prisoner. If both are eligible, both receive grants.”

*In the past year they were eligible, approximately 25,000 (and not the trumpeted 100,000) prisoner-students received funding among the 4.7 million Pell Grants disbursed. In other words, one-half of one percent of all awards went to prisoner students, and at the average amount then issued to prisoner-students of $1,400.00 would have totaled well less than one-quarter of the $200 million so loudly decried (i.e., six-tenths of one percent of the $6 billion in funds distributed.)

Over two-thirds of all grant recipients came from families with incomes at or below the poverty line, which matched the prisoner demographic the year prior to their incarceration, and wholly thereafter. Furthermore, nearly seven-out-of-ten (68%) of state prisoners had not received their high school diploma prior to arrest, two-thirds of the nation’s penal population is composed of minorities, and there are now more black males in prison earning GEDs than on the country’s campuses receiving degrees. As H. Lawyer and J. Dertinger, writing for the American Bar Association’s journal Criminal Justice pondered, “Where else would we find, in such large numbers, individuals who are so educationally, economically, and socially disadvantaged?”

*A point never mentioned by the politicians in the vitriolic lamentations over prisoner students receiving financial aid as traditional students struggled to meet ever-rising tuitions was that Congress never fully funded the Pell Grant program to its maximum allocation level, and in fact, had from time to time actually reduced its annual appropriation. Adjusted for inflation, the “purchasing power” of Pell Grant aid has not increased since 1975. Where Pell Grants had once covered most of the average cost of public university tuition, by 1999, the grant met only slightly more than half of the tuition expense. During the 1980s, inflation-adjusted tuition increased more than three-fold over state and federal financial assistance. And in the last two decades of the 20th century, working and middle-class incomes stagnated, necessitating a greater proportion of family incomes, doubling from an aggregate of 13 to 25 percent, to fund higher education expenses.

But these points, largely created by the very same grandstanding politicians, were not mentioned as requiring redress. These factors could be cogently postulated as having had a greater influence on families’ abilities to pay college costs than money provided to prisoner students. Instead, standing on the proverbial necks of scapegoated prisoners, the elected chose to truculently campaign for substantively meaningless change for traditional students, while abruptly expelling tens of thousands of prisoner-students from the ameliorative experience of higher education.

Finally, and most telling, when prisoners were barred from the Pell Grant program, not one additional grant was (by virtue of the very same needs-based formula) awarded to traditional students. Funding that had gone to prisoner students, equally divided among the millions of grant recipients increased by an extra $5.00 a semester. It was an insignificant gain for a devastating consequence.

Why Should We Care?

Before prisoners became ineligible for Pell Higher Education Grants there were more prisoner-students in American prisons than there are presently; although, the penal population today is twice the size it was then. Three years after the financial aid expulsion, prison-based college programs and enrollments had declined by half, with most all-penal systems reporting negative changes in their higher education opportunities. State systems, reacting to the example and loss of federal funding, eliminated prisoner-students eligibility from their grant programs altogether (e.g., Utah). Yet over the years, the Pell Grant appropriation has doubled, without one grant or one cent assisting prisoner-college students.

Really, though, why should it matter? So what if convicted felons don’t have the opportunity to earn college educations while serving their sentences?

The answer is: because they get out. It’s in society’s best interest criminologically, economically, penologically, and socially to provide and even encourage prisoners to complete as much education as possible. The more education prisoners acquire, the safer, more stable, and richer our commonwealths will be. In other words, succinctly put by a former director of the American Correctional Association, “If you’re sitting next to a convicted felon on the bus, would you rather he spent seven years in prison opening his mind and learning a skill, or staring at a crack in the wall?”

Over 70 percent of the nation’s prisoners have prior felony convictions and/or previous terms of incarceration. Average recidivism (i.e., return to prison) rates have increased to nearly seven out of ten parolees since the reductions of all forms of education and therapy programs. Prisoners earning college degrees, however, have common recidivism rates of 20 percent or even down to single digits when earning baccalaureates. Criminologist Robert Ross and H. McKay observed, “Nowhere else in the literature (of correctional programs) can one find such impressive results with the recidivistic adult offender.”

According to a USA Today editorial:

Like it or not, college has become the new high school. This reality is why forward-thinking educators and government officials are looking for ways to ensure more high school graduates go on to get associate, if not bachelor, degrees. That’s especially important for poor and minority students at risk of falling even further behind and becoming part of a permanent underclass.”

On average states invest as much as ($24,000) in supporting their students’ public school-earned baccalaureates as they spend annually ($25,000) incarcerating their prisoners. The standard return on the states’ higher education investments is approximately $2 million in economic stimulus and $375,000 in state tax revenues during each graduate’s working lifetime. This return on investment in the prisoner-student becomes further manifest when factoring in all the socio-economic savings from significantly reduced criminal behaviors, coupled with the increased state and federal tax revenues, and the productive and consumptive economic stimulus generated by the more highly educated worker. Consider this positive economic outcome as opposed to the all-too-common disruptive anti-social actions and demand for revenue-draining social services that recidivistic offenders can create.

With the primary goal of education and treatment programs to reduce crime, in one of the first assessments of prison college programs nearly thirty-five years ago, this holistic benefit was summarized as: “Simply, and aside from humanitarian concerns – it is cheaper in the not-so-long run to pay (adequately) for effective anti-recidivism measures than to finance law enforcement, justice administration, and penal services and apparatus.”

Or as J. Michael Quinlan, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons during the Reagan and Bush Administrations so bluntly put it, “I recognize,” the director explains, “that the cost of college is really very insignificant (i.e., 10% of a year of annual cost of incarceration alone) when you compare the cost and damage done by crime.”

*In 1930, the rate of African-American incarcerations was three times that of Anglo-Americans. By 1990, that ratio had increased to five times the number of blacks to whites. In 1996, there were eight African-Americans to every Anglo-American incarcerated in proportion to the racial composition of the nation. At the end of the millennium, one-in-three black men aged 20-29 were under some form of correctional supervision. One of the effects of this focused criminal justice effort is that by their thirties, almost twice as many black men will have been cycled through the penal system as have received baccalaureates.

Charles Sullivan, the executive director of the public advocacy group Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), claimed during the exclusionary legislation debate that it “smacks of racism since the majority of the penal population is composed of minorities.” Sullivan reasoned minority groups had been clearly disproportionately affected by banning prisoners from the Pell Grant programs. With more black males in prison than on college campuses, Sullivan wondered, as absurd as the concept was, about having to go to prison to receive a college education, were we then going to close off that avenue as well? The answer, apparently, is yes.

Across the country, the enrollment demographics of prison-college programs supported Sullivan’s contention. The composition of incarcerated collegiate student bodies generally mirrored the makeup of the penal populations, thus creating the most generally racially integrated university settings in the nation. Moreover, it reflected the racial composition that paid short-and-long term social dividends. Besides experiencing significantly reduced recidivism, these prisoner students were some of the best behaved and also served as some of the few positive role models in a milieu normally bereft of such.

Robert Powell, the assistant academic affairs officer at Shaw University observed in 1991, “If you want to educate black men, if you want to reclaim that talent out there, you have to go into the prison.” Ironically, Shaw University created its own prisoner-student fee-waiver scholarship program that was later negated by the state prison system, because it was in conflict with its policies prohibiting such inmate-exclusive funding programs.

It’s Time

The inclusion of prisoners in the Pell Grant program will not deprive a single qualified traditional student of funding, will not substantially affect students’ grant awards, nor cause an overall program cost increase. Such inclusion will, however, allow thousands of prisoner students to return to the edifying experience of college classrooms.

The American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, and the National Association of Equal Opportunity in Higher Education along with the Correctional Education Association, the Institute for Higher Education Policy, CURE, and the NAACP all endorse the restoration of eligibility for financial aid for “disenfranchised populations, including prisoners.”

Pell Grant funding eligibility is crucial to expanded and equitable Post-Secondary Education opportunities in United States prisons. It’s time to restore prisoner-student’s Pell Grant eligibility. It’s time for all the reasons already outlined. It’s time because it’s in the best interests of all of society to restore this avenue for holistic change, if not simply for the hope it provides for the possibility of a better future for all Americans – even the incarcerated that will one day be amongst us all. With 600,000 prisoners being released every year, it’s time.

(This article first appeared in Cell Door Magazine)