Give Prisoners a Second Chance

By Gerard Robinson and Elizabeth English

On October 12, 29 prisoners and 45 Baltimore-area experts in criminal justice congregated in the Jessup Correctional Institution library. Most were members of the University of Baltimore community or other academics. All were eager to see the inauguration of a Department of Education pilot program that could change the lives of participants for years to come.

In June 2016, the university was chosen among 67 colleges and universities nationwide to participate in the Obama administration’s $30 million Second Chance Pell Grant Experimental Sites Initiative. Under the program, approximately 12,000 of America’s 2.2 million incarcerated will receive federal aid to pursue a higher education. Upon release, they will retain the Pell funding to finish their program.

Since the university’s Second Chance College Program began at Jessup this fall, its students have been working toward a bachelor’s degree in community studies and civic engagement with a minor in entrepreneurship. To be eligible, prisoners had to have been enrolled in Jessup’s preexisting Scholars Program, which offers noncredit liberal arts courses; had a high school diploma or GED; and submitted two letters of recommendation and one personal essay.

Preference was given to those with a parole eligibility date within five years of the program’s start. Program directors sent letters to 150 men at Jessup with information on how to apply. Over 100 of those men submitted an application, and 29 are enrolled in the program today.

For its students, the program represents what the name indicates – a second chance. “The program … gave me the opportunity to pursue a goal I’ve always had,” one student remarked. “It’s allowed me to see that there are people out there who believe in me who have never met me.”

But unlike the men in the program, a sizeable number of the prison population has less than a high school degree. Some estimates indicate that over half of those in prison are functionally illiterate. Upon release, most leave prison unprepared to find work, housing and a stable social network. Almost one-third of those released from prison will be rearrested in their first year out, over half within three years and over three-quarters within five years.

The available research on prison education programs indicates that they are a smart investment – both for prisoners and taxpayers. One meta-analysis found that prisoners who participated in correctional education were 43 percent less likely to recidivate and 13 percent more likely to be employed upon release. It also found that every dollar invested in correctional education generates $5 in cost savings.

The idea of providing prisoners with federal aid for higher education is not new, but it is controversial. Under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, those in prison were eligible to receive Pell Grant funding for college coursework. That changed with a provision in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which prohibited the incarcerated from receiving the funding. At the time, lawmakers argued that it was unjust to provide federal aid to those behind bars while many law-abiding citizens could not afford higher education.

Twenty years later, the administration’s program has resurrected similar debates. Many lawmakers are again concerned about providing Pell dollars for those in prison, as evidenced by the 2015 Kids Before Cons Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), Rep. Doug LaMalfa, (R-Calif.) and Rep. Tom Reed (R-Calif.), which would ban the Department of Education from providing Pell Grants to prisoners. The bill was written, in part, in response to the Restoring Education and Learning Act of 2015 sponsored by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), which would lift the Pell Grant Ban from 1994.

The pilot program has also received new pushback and praise. When it was first announced, House Education and Workforce Committee chairman John Kline said, “Unfortunately, the administration has chosen once again to stifle an important debate [the Second Chance Pell Grant] by acting unilaterally and without regard for the law.” Comparatively, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), stated, “I think we are headed in the right direction, and I think this program fits right into that.”

On both sides of the aisle, an increased focus on prison education represents an evolving mindset in criminal justice reform that emphasizes reducing crime, saving taxpayer dollars and preventing recidivism. As reforms continue to gain traction, the program’s impact on reducing recidivism for participants will be critical to long-term conversations about how to best ensure that the nearly 600,000 men and women released from American prisons each year return as successful and productive members of society.

In the Jessup library, several students spoke to commemorate the launch. One student stressed to his classmates how much was at stake for them and for future students: “If we fall, they fall. But if we succeed, they succeed.” In this unconventional college setting – shelves of library books under windows donned with iron rods – program director and University of Baltimore professor Andrea Cantora uttered a sentence unheard inside the prison walls before: “Welcome to the University of Baltimore at Jessup Correctional Institution.”

This article by Gerard Robinson and Elizabeth English of the American Enterprise Institute was originally published by U.S. News and World Report on October 18, 2016. This version is published with permission by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Gerard Robinson is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Elizabeth English is a research associate in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (October 21, 2016). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the authors and their affiliations are cited.


Foundation Addendum

A Second Chance In Georgia

Georgia has no institutions involved in the Second Chance Pell Grant Experimental Sites Initiative, but the state has made enormous strides in education for inmates as part of its criminal justice reforms. Only about 30 percent of Georgia inmates have a high school diploma. Inmates already could earn their GED; now young inmates (under age 21) can also earn high school diplomas as part of a prison-based charter school program. The state Department of Corrections established the program through a state law that designates the department as a special school district.

Working through the Foothills Charter High School, the first charter program was established at Lee Arrendale (women’s) State Prison in Alto, Ga, and the second at Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, Ga. The first graduation ceremonies took place in June at both facilities.

According to the Department of Corrections, post-secondary academic study is available, “providing that the recipient has approval and pays all post-secondary costs.”

The department offers vocational training and helps prepare inmates for jobs upon their release. The Technical College System of Georgia certifies these workforce development programs – among them, auto repair, computer, cosmetology and veterinary assistant – and offers certificates to offenders who complete the program.