Struggle to restore federal Pell Grants to inmates continues

While giving inmates access to higher education should be a no brainer, it’s become an uphill battle. Take, for example, the struggle to restore Pell Grants to those in prison.

Before 1995, prisoners had access to Pell Grants, federal financial aid packages that are awarded to students from low-income families and don’t have to be repaid. The passage of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, however, changed all that and prevented giving Pell Grants to prisoners.

According to a Quick & the Ed blog article of Nov. 5 by Education Sector Policy Analyst Sarah Rosenberg, before 1995 there were about 350 college programs for prisoners in the U.S. In 2005 there were 12.

While the maximum amount of a Federal Pell Grant is currently $5,500, the average cost of incarcerating a prisoner is about ten times that.

Many studies have shown that education, especially post-secondary education, plays a vital role in reducing recidivism, saving the federal government and the states millions of dollars each year.

Although these grants may not pay the entire cost of a higher education in prison, they would go a long way towards supporting the programs. And even in 1994 at the height of the program, awards to prisoners represented only one-tenth of 1 percent of all Pell Grants given out.

Leading the charge to restore the Pell Grants to prisoners is the Education From the Inside Coalition based in the New York City area.

The coalition organized “Pell Grants and Prison Education: How Pell Grant Access in Prison Transforms Lives,” a panel discussion at Rutgers University in early December.

The restoration of the Pell Grants to prisoners is “one of the most important dialogues we can have in the context of law enforcement. I think that education in our prisons is the key to preventing recidivism,” said John J. Farmer, Jr., Dean of the Rutgers School of Law and former New Jersey attorney general, as reported in the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange blog article of Dec. 10.

According to Education from the Inside Coalition, every dollar invested in correctional education programs saves two dollars in prevented recidivism.

Not only will restoring Pell Grant eligibility to inmates reduce recidivism, it will also increase employment rates after release, strengthen communities, reduce poverty and improve mental health.

For more information, visit Education From the Inside Out at

To sign a petition supporting the restoration of Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners, go to


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