Last week, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited a prison in Maryland to make a controversial announcement: inmates at the facility will soon have the opportunity to earn college degrees on the government's dime. The Department of Education pilot program — which will make prisoners eligible to receive federal Pell grants — is classified as a research experiment. To get Pell grants back on the table for all prisoners, though, Congress — which in 1994 passed legislation eliminating federal financial aid for prisoners — would need to get involved.
The Obama administration's bold move comes in the wake of a growing body of research demonstrating that prisoners who receive education behind bars are less likely to return to prison; a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation
found that inmates who participated in correctional education were 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who didn’t. For every prisoner that doesn’t go back, the savings are massive; locking up one person for a year in Washington averages around $47,000.
To educate that same individual for a year while they are incarcerated costs an additional $2,000 to $3,000, says Carol Fitzgerald, who administers an innovative program at the Washington State Penitentiary where offenders can earn an Associates degree from Walla Walla Community College. Fitzgerald says 250 inmates have earned AA degrees at the prison over the last three years. The program is funded through a grant from the Sunshine Lady Foundation — an education advancement fund set up by heiress Doris Buffett.
“With more job skills and more education inmates are less likely to reoffend,” says Fitzgerald. Many offenders who complete the program stay in touch after they leave, too.
“Ex-offenders came back to our graduation ceremony to share their experiences,” says Fitzgerald. “They say they’ve found it’s more important [to employers] where you’re going than where you’ve been.”
The state penitentiary has vocational programs where inmates can earn HVAC and welding certifications, too. Fitzgerald says that 80 percent of 170 former inmates who completed these certification programs and left prison are working and report starting wages between $14 and $17 per hour — enough to get by without needing to resort to a life of crime. The recidivism rate for those inmates has been a scant 5 percent, a stark drop from the state's average recidivism rate of 35 percent.
Chet Mills teaches the HVAC Technician class at the state penitentiary. He says the focus is on inmates who are "close to the gate"; the certifications expire if they aren't used, so it wouldn't make sense to teach inmates who won't get out and be able to use their job training in the not-too-distant future.
“I’ve been a career criminal my whole life, but taking this class, it’s given me direction,” says Jonny Shineflew, one of Mills’ students. “I’m tired of coming to prison, there’s nothing fun about it.”
Shineflew has been at Walla Walla for a year-and-a-half and will get out in six months. He plans to look for an HVAC job upon release and says Mills' class has given him the tools — and the confidence — he needs to stay out of prison this time.
Fitzgerald says prisoners have always been allowed to fund their own higher education and some do fund their own AA, BA and even doctoral degrees, earned by mail through correspondence courses. The offerings are increasingly slim, though, as most universities have moved their distance learning curricula online. Before 1994 prisoners with financial need were able to use Pell grants for these same programs.
Even before the announcement last week, the Pell-grants-for-prisoners issue was on Congress’s radar, too. In May, U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards introduced a bill that would restore Pell grant access for prisoners
; it gained some traction last month among Democrats. Republicans have thoughts on this, too. Last week Rep. Chris Collins introduced the Kids Before Cons Act
, which would reinforce the ban. Stay tuned.