Prison isn’t the most intellectually stimulating environment, but the dimmest corners of the criminal justice system may actually be a perfect place to liberate an otherwise wasted mind. A new initiative by the White House to issue Pell Grants to incarcerated students is about to test just how truly corrective our so-called corrections system can be.
The plan to extend Pell Grant access in prisons is described as a “limited pilot program” authorized through a federal financial aid waiver program under the Higher Education Act. Incarcerated adults could apply for grants of up to $5,775 for tuition and related expenses, at college-level programs offered in prison facilities nationwide. Designed to allow for studying long-term effects of education on recidivism, the program moves toward restoring access to Pell Grants for incarcerated people, which Congress removed in the mid-1990s.
College behind bars remains a tough sell to some law-and-order conservatives—hence the charmingly titled counter-legislation, the “Kids Before Cons” Act. Generally, however, the idea of de-carcerating the prison population appeals to an ascendant libertarian streak among Republicans because, in fiscal terms, textbooks and professors yield better returns on investment than weight rooms and laundry duty.
Though research on prison education is still lacking, studies that have tracked the relationship between recidivism and educational attainment generally point to reduced recidivism and better preparation for transition back into their communities and the workforce upon release (nearly 690,000 people walk out of prisons each year, and several million will mill through local jails). A college degree can help offset the enormous employment barriers formerly incarcerated people typically face.
A 2013 RAND Corporation study showed that participation in prison education, including both academic and vocational programming, was associated with an over 40 percent reduction in recidivism—saving $4 to $5 for each dollar spent.
But educational interventions may have more profound social impacts. Attending college classes has been associated with improved social climate and communications in the prison population, and “reduced problems with disciplinary infractions,” according to an analysis by the Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP). A study on women incarcerated at New York’s Bedford Hills facility was linked to improved family relationships, by demonstrating to family members a commitment to rehabilitation and turning parents into academic “role models.”