More than 700,000 incarcerated individuals are estimated to be eligible for Pell Grant funds as of this past Saturday, July 1, marking the first time men and women in prisons have had broad access to Pell Grants since 1994, when Congress voted to deny these funds to incarcerated individuals. (Since 2015, a federal pilot program known as Second Chance Pell has allowed access to Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals enrolled in programs offered by a select group of participating colleges.)
Nearly all incarcerated people—at least 95 percent—will get out of prison one day and re-enter society, according to the Office of the U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Georgia. While many colleges and universities already do transformative work in this space, we now have an opportunity to impact even more lives with the availability of more federal funding.
Increasing access to college classes for incarcerated students will have a broad societal benefit, especially among underrepresented groups, since Black Americans are imprisoned at approximately five times the rate of whites. Among prison populations, 38 percent are Black versus 13.6 percent in the general population.
Each year, more than 700,000 people are released from state and federal prisons across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Education, including postsecondary education, is a critical lifeline for their successful re-entry into society, and a powerful inoculant against recidivism.
Some universities are already extending their mission to include those in prisons. Penn State’s Prison Journalism Project provides an outlet and a voice to more than 600 incarcerated writers in 195 prisons across the country. In Los Angeles, the UCLA Prison Education Program brings faculty and students to “learn alongside” incarcerated individuals, “thereby challenging bias, discrimination, and injustice in a shared and collaborative learning experience.”
In 1997, Temple University criminal justice professor Lori Pompa started the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. This pedagogical model brings incarcerated and non-incarcerated students together to learn side by side in prison. Students collaborate on projects and participate in themed discussions similar to the engagements you’d expect in a robust classroom experience. Since the program was founded, more than 160 colleges and universities around the nation and world have sponsored Inside-Out training and courses. This includes the institution I lead, as the program has become a critical window into the criminal justice system, and into the societal determinants of crime and poverty for Quinnipiac University students.
Prison outreach has a long-standing history at Quinnipiac, dating back to the 1970s. Today, the Prison Project is an interdisciplinary group of faculty, staff, students and allies driven to improve social justice and reduce mass incarceration through education, advocacy and re-entry work. Our faculty teach inside several state prisons, among them the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, a maximum-security facility and the largest prison in New England. Our School of Communications is piloting a four-course certificate in communications there.
These are just a few examples of the life-changing work initiated across higher education. For some incarcerated individuals, classes in prison are a diversion, a 60-minute escape from the numbing routine of a prison cell. For others, these classes are a very deliberate restart, an entry point into a job, an income and a second chance toward a long-term life outside prison.