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Bills Pushing Pell Grants for Inmates Elicit Positive Reaction

Legislation pending in both chambers of Congress that would reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for inmates has gotten affirmation from District residents familiar with the bill.

On April 9, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) introduced the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act that would allow inmates to pay for their postsecondary education through the Pell Grant program. In the House, Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), Cedric Richmond (D-La.), Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and French Hill (R-Ark.) offered companion legislation by the same name.

In reference to the bills, Lee said, “to ensure that formerly incarcerated individuals have the tools they need to be more productive members of society, we must see education as a right that can create a path to a better life for them.”

“The REAL Act represents real reform and I am proud to help lead the bipartisan effort to pass it,” she said. “This legislation is a great step towards addressing the economic and social realities that drive mass incarceration, especially in communities of color.”

From 1965 to 1994, incarcerated students had access to Pell Grants but a 1994 amendment to the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act (Crime Bill) denied all prisoners access to Pell funding. As a result, enrollment in college and prison partnerships dropped by 40 percent in the year after the bill took effect.

Since then, returning citizen advocates, progressives and later some conservatives, have called for the reinstatement of the Pell Grant for inmates. Supporters of the Pell reinstatement point to studies that show a 43 percent reduction in recidivism for inmates who had access to education and 64 percent of incarcerated people are academically eligible to enroll in some form of postsecondary education.

In 2016, the Obama administration’s Department of Education utilized a program, the Experimental Sites Initiative, providing Pell Grant funding for postsecondary education at 67 colleges and universities working in 100 correctional facilities. As a result, 954 credentials have been awarded at the presently known Second Change Pell sites, with 578 students graduating from certification, associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs.

In May, the Trump administration expanded funding for these sites. The Senate leadership referred Schatz’s bill to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions while House leaders sent its bill to the Committee on Education and Labor.

Support in the District

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) co-sponsored a 2015 version of the REAL Act in the House and no indication exists that she has changed her mind on the issue.

When Stuart Anderson, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination for the Ward 8 D.C. Council position, heard about the Pell Grant inmate eligibility bills, he expressed approval.

“I received Pell Grants for classes I took as a student at Park College while I was incarcerated at the Lorton Reformatory,” said Anderson, who eventually got three associate’s degrees and a certificate from the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). “I support reinstating the Pell Grants for prisoners because statistics show that individuals incarcerated who participated in collegiate work had a much lower recidivism rate than the national average and educating prisoners changes the trajectory of their lives. You return to the community with a different mindset.”

Daria Winter, one of Anderson’s English instructors at UDC’s Lorton campus, agreed with her former pupil.

“To me, the program was a success and I was not happy when the Pell Grant elimination took place,” Winter said. “Walter Ridley, who was the director of corrections for Lorton, said that inmates who received a college degree had a recidivism rate of four to five percent and he was proud of that. I think access to Pell Grants will give inmates a chance to shape their lives so they can become productive members of the community when released.”

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