Reformers, Academics Call for Lifting Ban on Pell Grants for Prisoners

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

John J. Farmer Jr.

Former New Jersey attorney general John J. Farmer Jr. says that ‘education in our prisons is the key to preventing recidivism.’

NEWARK, N.J. — Calling it a matter of public safety, a moral obligation—and even a potential revenue boon for colleges and universities—a group of criminal justice reformers and academics gathered Thursday to call for an end to the federal ban on Pell Grants for prisoners.

“It’s not about giving somebody something,” said Dr. Todd Clear, Dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers. “It’s about stopping craziness.”

Clear 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.”

The “craziness” to which Clear and other speakers were referring is the Republican-led 1994 federal ban on Pell Grants to prisoners—a policy they criticized as being backward, contrary to public safety and against human rights.

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 the 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.”

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,” said Farmer.

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.”

Yet, despite academic support for education for those serving time, political support has been tougher to garner.

Farmer said that, 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 re-enter 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 order to try and reverse the 1994 ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals.

Each time, they leave the table with the idea that they must first build broad public support before any official will take it on.

The fact that the U.S. House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans—who led the call for the ban on prisoner access to Pell Grants in the first place—doesn’t make the sell job any easier, some observers say.

Beyond politics, the Pell Grant program faces a $6 billion shortfall for the 2014-2015 school year. Expanding the program to serve prisoners, then, is destined to stir the same type of sentiments that led to the federal ban on Pell Grants to prisoners in 1994. That is to say, some taxpayers may question why public money should flow to those who’ve violated the law instead of to law-abiding citizens who also need money for college.

Those who attended Thursday’s event had plenty of responses to such notions.

Glenn Martin, vice president at The Fortune Society, an advocacy group that works on prisoner re-entry issues, dismissed the $6 billion shortfall for the Pell Grant program as a red herring 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, before the ban, 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 a life of crime.

Panelist Walter Fortson, 27, a graduating senior at Rutgers and founding president of the Mountainview Student Organization, an association for students in a program that helps inmates at Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility gain admission to Rutgers, said he gets questioned all the time about the fact that he was granted a $30,000 Harry S. Truman Scholarship.

In online comments about various articles that have been written about him, 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 served time for a drug conviction.

“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, executive director of the College and Community Fellowship, a group that works on re-entry 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.”

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