Restoring Pell Grants—And Possibilities—for Prisoners

Classes inside prison give people a sense of community, a sense of purpose, a sense of identity, and a sense of hope.

An illustration of chains breaking free around a hand holding a diploma.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

During the winter months, the small classroom smelled of wood and heat. Three rows of desks faced the door, and before class began I would rearrange some of them into a circle. Different shades of forest green hugged the walls, the remnants of years of paint jobs done with varying levels of proficiency and care. On bright mornings, the sun sliced through two large windows and bathed the classroom in the day’s new light. During thunderstorms, rain sang along the windows’ glass, and I would turn on the lights so that everyone in the class would be able to read the books in front of us. The lights would hum and crackle, the air still in anticipation of the bodies that would fill it.

I have been teaching in prisons and jails for several years now, but I have not forgotten those first weeks at a Massachusetts correctional center in my early years as a graduate student: feeling the linoleum underfoot as I was made to remove my shoes, raising my arms and being patted down, having the pages of my books and notebooks examined for any contraband that might have been snuck into its creases, listening as a heavy steel gate slid across the floor and closed behind me after I entered each room, the eyes and cameras—so many cameras—watching as my body moved from one location to another.

In that prison and in that classroom, I read and discussed books—novels, plays, essays, poems—with a group of five men who were serving life sentences, most of them three or four decades into their time. I was changed by those men and by that class—a class in which I was less a teacher and more a guest welcomed into an intellectual community they had already created. My time with those men led me to focus my graduate research on the relationship between education and incarceration, particularly for those serving life sentences. What did it mean to learn or to pursue an education, I wondered, when you’ve been told you will spend the rest of your life in a cage?

Over the course of my teaching and research, I learned that while education was transformative for many incarcerated people, the opportunities for people in prison to obtain formal educational credentials, specifically college degrees, were painfully limited. Almost none of the courses I taught could be used by the men to obtain any higher-education credit.

In 1994, Congress put a new impediment in their way, removing Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated people as part of that year’s crime bill. But last December, after 27 years, the $900 billion stimulus package—passed by both chambers of Congress and signed into law only a few weeks before President Joe Biden was sworn into office—reversed that decision. That bill has the potential to reshape the educational landscape inside prisons, providing a set of possibilities for incarcerated people across the country that has not existed in decades.

In 2001, 18 years after he was first incarcerated, Vincent “Sharif” Boyd received his GED. He had been in prison since he was 16. “I was so happy,” he told me when we spoke in 2019, as I was conducting interviews for my dissertation. A huge smile stretched across his face, but it faded into disappointment as he told me how he’d never had the chance to continue his education through college. By the time he had decided to pursue the opportunity, Pell Grants had been taken away from people in prison, and he could not afford to pay for college on his own.

“I tell you like this, I got a degree in penitentiaryology,” he told me. “I got a degree, you know what I mean? But I ain’t got no paperwork for it.”

The Higher Education Act of 1965, which expanded college access across the country, triggered a surge of requests from incarcerated people who wanted the opportunity to take college courses. Then the 1971 Attica prison uprising brought new support for the rights of incarcerated people, increasing correctional departments’ willingness to incorporate higher-education programs. By 1982, 350 college-prison programs enrolled 27,000 people—9 percent of the nation’s prison population. By the early ’90s, more than 770 programs were operating in nearly 1,300 prisons nationwide. And because incarcerated people are disproportionately poor, the students in these programs were particularly dependent on Pell Grants for higher-education funding.

But in 1994, everything changed. Determined to show that he was tough on crime, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which, among other things, stripped Pell Grant eligibility from people who are incarcerated. That provision had been added to the bill by Representative Bart Gordon, a Democrat from Tennessee, with the support of almost all House Republicans and a majority of Democrats. The bill itself was championed by then-Senator Biden—who now says that he regrets supporting the Pell Grant provision—and a bipartisan group of legislators and activists, many of whom, like Biden, say that they did not foresee the full impact the bill would have on accelerating mass incarceration.

In a 1994 floor speech, Gordon said:

Just because one blind hog may occasionally find an acorn doesn’t mean many other blind hogs will. The same principle applies to giving federal Pell Grants to prisoners. Certainly there is an occasional success story, but when virtually every prisoner in America is eligible for the Pell Grants, national priorities and taxpayers lose.

From the other side of the aisle, Republican Representative Jack Fields pushed a similar message:

Every dollar in Pell Grant funds obtained by prisoners means that fewer law-abiding students are eligible for that assistance. It also means that law-abiding students that meet eligibility criteria receive smaller annual grants.

These attacks were not grounded in reality. In the 1993–94 academic year, those in prison received just $35 million of the $5.6 billion in overall Pell Grants—less than 1 percent. And no applicant who was eligible for a Pell Grant ever lost that grant to someone who was incarcerated, according to the Government Accountability Office. The grants are awarded on the basis of merit, and any costs above the yearly appropriation come out of the next year’s budget.

Nonetheless, the bill decimated the formal educational infrastructure in prisons across the country, as university after university withdrew their programs because of a lack of financial support. Making matters worse, individual states followed the lead of the federal government, cutting off their financial support. By 1997, only eight college-prison programs were left, all of which had to find their own funding, as Gerard Robinson and Elizabeth English noted in a 2017 report from the American Enterprise Institute.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, without federal aid, the rate of college-course participation dropped by about half. In 1991, 13.9 percent of people in state prisons and 18.9 percent of people in federal prisons had taken at least one college-level course since being incarcerated. By 1997, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 9.9 percent of people in state prisons and 12.9 percent of people in federal prisons had taken a college-level course. In 2004, only 7.3 percent of those surveyed in state prisons had taken a college-level course since they became incarcerated.

Now that people in prison could not access college courses, degrees proved out of reach. A 2014 study of incarcerated people by the National Center for Education Statistics found that just 2 percent had completed an associate’s degree while they were incarcerated, and only 1 percent had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. Fully 58 percent of those surveyed said they had not completed any formal education programs since they entered prison.

I found that, among the people I interviewed for my dissertation research, the crime bill was a watershed: There was life in prison before the bill, and there was life in prison after it.

John Pace has smooth, black hair with thick waves coursing across his scalp. He has a calm disposition, a wide grin, and a pair of reading glasses that he doesn’t wear as much as he uses them to keep his hands busy. We met at a Subway in downtown Philadelphia in the fall of 2018, and he told me about how the withdrawal of Pell Grants had shaped his life in prison.

When he was 17, Pace pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after mugging a man who later died from his injuries. He was sentenced to life in prison, serving 31 years in a Pennsylvania prison before a 2012 Supreme Court ruling said that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional for children; a 2016 Supreme Court case made that ruling retroactive.

While he was incarcerated, Pace desperately wanted a college degree, and he was taking as many classes as he could when the crime bill went into effect. Without Pell Grants for people in prison, any university in Pennsylvania that wanted to serve incarcerated students had to cover the costs itself, often through grants received for that purpose. This meant fewer teachers, smaller classes, and less space.

“When they took away the Pell Grants, essentially they eliminated lifers,” Pace told me. People serving life sentences were at the bottom of the priority list for classes, and there weren’t enough slots to go around. “The state still continued to provide education, particularly for nonlifers. And the idea was that lifers will spend the rest of their life in prison; why invest in them?” he said. “If you wanted to participate as a lifer, you had to pay for your own course.”

But Pace wasn’t willing to simply accept that he could no longer take college classes, not when he had already worked hard to accumulate credits, so he persuaded his sister to pay for his education. While Pace was grateful, he also knew that his sister had a limited income; paying for these classes was a significant strain on her finances. She had two kids. He needed to figure out another way.

Pace befriended an incarcerated man who had earned a Ph.D. in the early ’80s, who told Pace there might be another way he could get money for his education. Together, they wrote to churches, businesses, and organizations, explaining Pace’s story and requesting financial sponsorship so that he could complete his college degree. After sending out more than 50 letters, Pace finally heard back from a small Lutheran church that was willing to pay for his remote courses at Penn State University.

Pace was transferred to a different prison in 1997, where courses from Villanova were available. At first, he was only able to audit classes. “I guess that they was trying to determine who’s serious, who’s not,” he said. “But once I took a couple of audit classes, then they started giving me credit.” The process was extremely slow; Pace took 13 years to graduate. But when he was released, in 2017, he said, he felt far more ready than he otherwise would have been to step back into the world.

In 2015, the Obama administration announced a pilot program known as “Second Chance Pell,” an initial effort to make amends for the damage wrought in 1994. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, over the course of its first three years, the program reached more than 17,000 students in 28 states, who earned 4,500 certificates, postsecondary diplomas, associate’s degrees, and bachelor’s degrees.

Research has begun to identify some of the benefits of providing access to education in prison. Such programs can reduce violence inside prisons, as well as recidivism rates. Among incarcerated people who earned a GED, recidivism rates within three years decreased 14 percent for those under 21, and 5 percent for those over 21. But when people took college-level courses, there was an even stronger correlation: a 46 percent lower rate of recidivism compared with those who did not.

“The cost-benefit of this does not take a math genius to figure out,” then–Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said when the pilot program was announced. “We lock folks up here, $35-40,000 every single year. A Pell Grant is less than $6,000 each year.”

Duncan is correct, of course, but what I found in my research and in my time teaching in prisons was that the benefits of education in prison are far greater than what can be captured in financial figures. Classes inside prison give people a sense of community, a sense of purpose, a sense of identity, and a sense of hope. These are not the sorts of things that are easily quantifiable, or entered into a spreadsheet that can be presented to policy makers, but they play a profound role in shaping both the time people spend in prison and their life after being released.

A lot of incarcerated people have an acute sense of the possibilities that education offers them while they are incarcerated. That gives many with long-term or life sentences hope that educational attainment, along with good behavior, might lead to a lessening of their sentence and a chance of going home. As another one of the men I interviewed told me, “You always had the feeling that, the more you learn, the more you stay outta trouble; the more you educate yourself, the greater your chances of actually becoming free.”

Pell Grants being taken away was part of a larger effort during the tough-on-crime era in which many states made incarcerated people pay for services and programs themselves. “They would find a way to get money from incarcerated people rather than giving money,” Pace told me. “We were in that particular period of time where they were just stripping things away. Pell Grants are one of those things. So you got a large population competing for the little resources that are available.”

Pace recalled that whenever the man who ran the Villanova program came to the prison to gauge interest and register prospective students, there was never enough space, either on the registration form or in the room where the introductory session was held. “The whole class is filled up,” he said, recalling the scene. “People hanging out the doors … people can’t get into the room, because they trying to sign up for college classes. But he couldn’t take everybody.” But with Pell Grant eligibility being restored to incarcerated people, Pace said, more colleges should be able to come into prisons to provide these much-desired classes.

I recently asked Pace why he thought that providing college courses, and educational opportunities more generally, was important for incarcerated people. He thought for a moment, then responded. “There’s times when you’re in dark spaces, particularly if you’re facing a lot of time,” he said. “But if you’re engaged—and for me, college was one of those things that I was engaged in—it provides you with tools to be able to express your thoughts [and] what it is that you’re going through. It’s transformative in that regard, because many of us came to prison without a voice and didn’t know how to articulate ourselves. And I think college provides that opportunity to be able to express yourself in a constructive way, and to be able to help yourself. It really provided me with that tool where I could advocate for myself.”

Pace took classes in philosophy, history, and sociology—courses that helped clarify his sense of the world around him and his place in it. In his sociology class, for example, he remembers reading Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, and learning more about how the racial inequities in contemporary society have come to manifest themselves. The neighborhood he grew up in was saturated with poverty and violence, he began to understand, not because anything was wrong with the people in the community, but because of things that had been done to his community.

Pace also read books on his own, but it was in his college classes, he told me, that he was able to discuss, wrestle with, and make sense of what he was reading in a community of other learners. “It gave me an [understanding] in terms of the social context in which Black folks encounter America,” he said.

“When I think about what college does, here it is you read diverse books, many different books—I call it ‘old knowledge,’” he told me. “You’re trying to make sense of these different perspectives. And you’re trying to construct your own to make sense of their thoughts. And that’s challenging, but it’s a good challenge.”

We will need some time to better understand the full impact that reinstating Pell Grant eligibility will have on the prison-education landscape (the bill’s provisions don’t go into effect until 2023). And right now, educational programs in most prisons across the country have either halted or gone virtual because of COVID-19. The writing workshop I teach at a Washington, D.C., jail has been suspended for a year now, with tablets currently serving as the most manageable substitute. Even when in-person programming finally resumes, it may take some time to restore higher-education opportunities to the levels that existed before the pandemic, much less prior to 1994. Making sure that happens swiftly isn’t just an economic imperative, but a moral one.