By the 1860s, when 3.9 million African Americans were enslaved, the U.S. was on the brink a critical tipping point — the Civil War, which would eventually abolish slavery. Unfortunately, this didn’t immediately ensure equality for African Americans. Many formerly enslaved individuals would struggle to lift themselves out of poverty as racial discrimination continued to limit their opportunities for education, employment and housing.
Today, many former slaveholding states still have some of the highest populations of African American residents in the country. They share two other disturbing statistics: the highest poverty and incarceration rates, particularly among African Americans.
The majority of the 2 million persons behind bars in the U.S. are African American. Mass incarceration is, in fact, modern-day slavery.
Why are there so many people behind bars? For one thing, the 1994 crime bill, formally known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, reframed criminal justice. Instead of compassion and rehabilitation, the focus shifted towards being “tough on crime.” Since then, misdemeanors and violent offenses are often treated similarly, resulting in overpopulated prisons. Not to mention, mass incarceration is now big business for many corporations.
Poverty is also a defining factor. Two states among the poorest and hungriest in the country — Louisiana and Mississippi — also have the highest incarceration rates in the country. Though it has recently been bumped to second place, Louisiana topped that list for years, with four Black inmates to every white inmate. In Mississippi, the rate is three to one.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Washington, D.C. has an incarceration rate of 1,153 per 100,000 people — a higher rate than any other state. The District also ranks among the top 10 poorest in the country.
It’s no secret that education and employment opportunities are effective in stopping the cycle of poverty. The federal Pell Grant program provides financial aid for low-income college students across the country. It also helps make technical training accessible to low-income students.
In state prisons, 68 percent of incarcerated individuals lack a high school diploma, and in the past, many used a Pell Grant to finish their education while in prison. This all changed when the 1994 crime bill ended eligibility for incarcerated people.
Lack of education is a key contributor to joblessness, poverty, recidivism, and mass incarceration. Eliminating access to this federal education fund has only worsened the challenges formerly incarcerated individuals face as they re-enter society. In fact, 40 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals return to prison after only 3 years and 83 percent are arrested again after nine years.
As Quakers, we believe that restorative justice requires us to look at the whole person — not just the crimes they’ve committed. Research shows that recidivism among those who obtain a bachelor’s degree drops by 28 percent. Allowing people who have been incarcerated to access Pell Grants allows everyone to reach their full God-given potential.
The College Affordability Act (H.R. 4647) would do just that, so we must urge our lawmakers to pass it. The bill would restore Pell Grant access to all incarcerated individuals. To ensure the highest quality of education for incarcerated individuals, it would also require institutions that would educate incarcerated individuals to be accredited, ensure that distance-learning programs have the same standards as in-person learning programs, and track the post-release outcome of incarcerated students.
The U.S. leads the world in incarceration. This isn’t an aspirational title. It’s been nearly 160 years since slavery was formally abolished, but it persists in our mass incarceration system. It is time to transform our nation’s punitive criminal justice system to one of rehabilitation. Restoring Pell Grant access will help end one modern vestige of slavery by giving millions of formerly incarcerated individuals a real chance to succeed.
José Santos Woss is the legislative manager for criminal justice and election integrity at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL). He co-chairs the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, an alliance of more than 40 national faith groups advocating to end mass incarceration.