Lawmakers Endorse Pell Grant Eligibility for the Incarcerated

A recently re-introduced bill would restore Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated people and expand their educational opportunities. The bipartisan and bicameral bill, the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act of 2019, was re-introduced by Representatives Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), Jim Banks (R-Ind.), French Hill (R-Ark.), and Representative Cedric Richmond (D-La.) last week, according to a news release. The legislation will “strengthen successful reentry and economic growth” by reinstating the Pell Grant — a federal subsidy for students who haven’t earned a bachelor’s degree, which does not have to be repaid — granting aid for incarcerated people and expanding postsecondary education in prison.

“To ensure that formerly incarcerated individuals have the tools they need to be productive members of society, we must see education as a right that can create a path to a better life for them,” said Lee in a statement. “REAL Act… will expand access to Pell Grants in federal and state penal institutions, reduce costs for taxpayers, help address the recidivism crisis, and empower those who have made a mistake to rebuild their lives.” “The REAL Act represents real reform, and I am proud to help lead the bipartisan effort to pass it. This legislation is a great step towards addressing the economic and social realities that drive mass incarceration, especially in communities of color,” Lee said.

The majority of incarcerated individuals are “academically eligible to advance to postsecondary level courses,” according to a January report from the Vera Institute and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. Sixty-four percent of 18 to 74-year-olds in federal and state prison between 2012 and 2014 also had a high school degree or its equivalent. The report noted that education in prison would decrease recidivism rates, which could potentially save the US $365.8 million per year on incarceration costs.

To be eligible for a Pell Grant, an individual must be an undergraduate or vocational student enrolled or accepted for enrollment in a participating college or university, according to the Federal Student Aid website. Currently, individuals are ineligible for Pell Grants if they are incarcerated in a federal or state penal institution, or subject to “an involuntary civil commitment upon completion of a period of incarceration for a forcible or nonforcible sexual offense.” The bill has the support of over 50 progressive and conservative organizations, including Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), who are pushing for the bill in the Senate, according to the news release.

“Restoring Pell Grants to the incarcerated is a bipartisan effort because it strengthens communities, improves reentry, promotes economic well-being, increases labor force participation, and meets workforce demands,” Davis said in the news release. “Permanent restoration of Pell Grant eligibility for the incarcerated is a smart federal investment that makes communities safer and our country stronger while reducing taxpayer costs.”

Nick Turner, president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice, said the reintroduction of the bill is a great step to providing incarcerated individuals with more opportunities once they are released.

“The federal ban on Pell Grants for people in prison is a relic of the ‘tough on crime’ era that is now widely recognized as having caused more harm than good. Restoring Pell eligibility for incarcerated people is a common sense next step toward a more just and restorative criminal justice system,” said Turner in a statement. “Accredited, postsecondary courses in prison have been found by a number of studies to dramatically reduce recidivism rates while also cutting costly state prison expenditures and creating safer communities by providing individuals with greater economic opportunity upon release.”

“If we’re truly committed to disrupting mass incarceration and ensuring equal justice for all, lifting the ban on Pell Grants is one of the most effective routes to achieving that goal,” Turner said.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.