Ronald Day, Associate Vice President at The Fortune Society

Applause For And Some Thoughts On The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program

Monday, August 3, 2015

“As part of the Obama Administration’s commitment to create a fairer, more effective criminal justice system, reduce recidivism, and combat the impact of mass incarceration on communities,” the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) on Friday launched the Pell Pilot program.

According to the USDOE, the program is designed “to test new models to allow incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants and pursue the post-secondary education with the goal of helping them, ultimately, get jobs, support their families, and turn their lives around.”

The Fortune Society applauds this courageous step in the right direction. Indeed, we have advocated for reinstating Pell Grants since the ink dried on the legislation that cut the funding in 1994.

Two decades ago, we were in the midst of a wave of harsh and arbitrary criminal justice polices. These polices were expansive; they were not restricted to arrest, sentencing, parole, and post-release services. This wave included the eradication of government funding for college prison programs which had a strong track record of reducing recidivism and improving lives and communities.

There has been sharp criticism about “criminals” having access to college. Our position is that committing a crime doesn’t make a person less worthy of an education, particularly considering the correlation between crime and low educational attainment. Even the staunchest critic has to concede that the program pays for itself through its significant benefits, chief among them lower rates of re-offending and an increased likelihood of securing viable employment. It costs a few thousand dollars per person to pay for college courses in prison — and a minimum of $30,000 a year to house a person who is re-incarcerated in a New York State prison. While this seems like a no-brainer, an incessant focus on punishment has a tendency to produce injudicious policies.

In addition, incarcerated college students often act as mentors to other people in prison and to their family members. At times, they are the catalyst for family and friends advancing their own education. And, truth be told, allowing people in prison to have access to Pell Grants will not limit grants for people in the community since grants are assessed as “need-based.”

I was able to enroll in college in 1993 almost immediately upon entering the state system. Although I was only able to earn 51 college credits before the funding was cut, I’m sure that college helped change my thinking and ultimately my life’s trajectory.

As it happens, the program will likely be available to people who have less than five years to release. We would like to see this important opportunity extended to anyone who wants access to post-secondary education while in prison. Indeed, I wonder how different my life might be, or if I would have remained interested in a college education, if I had to wait a decade before having access to college courses (I was serving 15-45 years). What I do know is that the funding has allowed me to embark on a journey from GED to Ph.D.

We believe in the transformative power of education and are confident that this pilot will reaffirm the effectiveness of college prison programs. The victory that we await is for Governor Cuomo to reinstate TAP so that state funding will be accessible for people in New York State prisons.

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