NEWARK, N.J. – Recidivism could be cut and public dollars could be saved if lawmakers lifted a longstanding federal ban on Pell grants to prisoners.
Those were some of the key arguments made at Rutgers University last week by a group of academics, criminal justice reformers and formerly incarcerated individuals in a fledgling program meant to serve as a bridge from a youth correctional facility to college.
John J. Farmer, Jr., former New Jersey attorney general and now Dean and Professor of Law at the Rutgers School of Law, called the restoration of Pell grants for prisoners “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,” Farmer said.
Farmer made his remarks Thursday at the Rutgers University Paul Robeson Campus Center during an event titled “Pell Grants and Prison Education: How Pell Grant Access in Prison Transforms Lives.”
Among those who spoke in support of lifting the ban on Pell grants to prisoners was Dallas Pell, daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, father of Pell grants.
Pell, who is founder of an organization called Pell Grants for Public Safety, said providing education for individuals in prison is a “no-brainer” and “one of the most effective tools we have to make our community safe.”
Pell and various speakers noted how a plethora of studies have repeatedly found that higher education for prisoners significantly reduces their likelihood of returning to prison. Indeed, a 2005 Institute for Higher Education report, titled “Learning to Reduce Recidivism,” noted how “research consistently demonstrates that participation in educational programs while incarcerated reduces recidivism rates by increasing an individual’s ability to successfully rejoin mainstream society upon release from prison.” The paper also recommends restoration of Pell grants for prisoners.
While academic support for education in correctional settings is easy to find, political will to lift the federal ban on Pell grants to prisoners has been more difficult to garner.
Farmer said toward the end of his stint as New Jersey Attorney General from 1999 to 2002, he tried to sponsor legislation that would provide for increased educational opportunities for prisoners in order to make it easier for them to reenter society.
“At the time there just was no traction among the political people to pass legislation like this,” Farmer said.
The group that organized Thursday’s discussion – The Education from the Inside Out Coalition – has faced similar challenges.
Over the past few years, the organization has approached key members of Congress and, more recently, officials at the U.S. Department of Education in an attempt to get them to reverse the 1994 ban on Pell grants for incarcerated individuals.
Each time, those involved in the effort say, they leave the table with the idea that they must first build broad public support before any official will take the issue on.
Beyond politics, the Pell grant program faces a $6 billion shortfall for the 2014-2015 school year.
Glenn Martin, vice president at The Fortune Society, an advocacy group that works on prisoner reentry issues, dismissed the $6 billion shortfall for the Pell grant program as a distraction in the discussion about restoring Pell grants to prisoners. He said the Pell grant program has faced shortfalls before and Congress has always found ways to fill them.
Asked what the actual dollar increase would be if Pell grants to prisoners were restored, Dallas Pell cited a statistic that showed that prisoners represented a fraction of a percent of all Pell grant recipients.
Proponents of Pell grants for prisoners argue that irrespective of the cost, society will pay more to incarcerate individuals than it would to educate prisoners and thereby lessen their likelihood of returning to prison.
To bolster their case, they cited studies, for instance, such as “Prison vs. Princeton,” which showed that it costs $44,000 to incarcerate one prisoner for a year in New Jersey, whereas the cost to attend Princeton University is $37,000 per year.
Another report by the Correctional Association of New York found “lopsided” spending on prison versus education, specifically, $44,000 per year to house prisoners versus $7,645 per full-time student within the State University of New York system.
“The cost differences in education versus incarceration in New York, plus the short- and long-term benefits of a better educated population, makes investment in higher education for incarcerated individuals and people in the community smart fiscal policy,” the report states.
Todd Clear, dean of the school of criminal justice at Rutgers, said educating inmates is the most effective thing that can be done to reduce recidivism.
“Everything else comes in second or later,” Clear said.
Panelist Walter Fortson, 27, a former inmate at Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility who is now a graduating senior at Rutgers -- said he gets questioned all the time about the fact that he was granted a $30,000 Harry S. Truman Scholarship. Fortson – who served time for selling crack cocaine -- eventually got involved in a program at Mountainview that helps inmates there gain admission to Rutgers.
In online comments about various articles that have been written about transformation from convicted drug dealer to scholarship-winning student at Rutgers, Fortson said, “people would say, ‘This isn’t fair. I’m paying off loans that I’ve been paying for the last (several) years, and they give this felon a scholarship,’” said Fortson, who is founding president of the Mountainview Student Organization.
“But I will never go back to prison,” said Fortson, who plans to go on to graduate school to study public affairs. “And that’s something you would have paid $50,000 a year for every year I was there. What would you prefer?” Vivian Nixon, leader of The Education from the Inside Out Coalition and executive director of the College and Community Fellowship, a group that works on reentry issues for women with criminal convictions, said there are reasons to support education for prisoners that transcend the public cost.
“Education isn’t a social service program,” Nixon said. “It’s a fundamental human right. It’s essential in order to achieve other rights.”
To those who examine the issue in terms of costs, Nixon said, “You can’t put a price tag on hope.”
Photo courtesy of the Education from the Inside Out Coalition.