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Criminal Justice Expert Says Pell Grant Program For Inmates An Investment In Public Safety

a prison inmate from neck down wearing a white shirt and a watch, hands clasped
Austin Price

From Texas Standard:

Prison inmates are eligible once again for federal Pell Grants to pursue higher education while incarcerated. For over 25 years, they were banned from the program as a result of rules enacted during the tough-on-crime era of the 1990s. But Congress reinstated their eligibility after pilot programs under the Obama and Trump administrations proved successful.

Margaret diZerega, director to the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, told Texas Standard that reinstating Pell Grants is an investment in public safety.

“Ninety-five percent of people in prison are going to return to our communities. And it’s to all of our benefit that they are successful,” she said. “They’d much rather spend that time building skills and knowledge so that they can take care of themselves and their families when they come home.”

diZerega says higher education can help reduce prison recidivism by up to 48%, by some estimates. That could help lower the financial burden on taxpayers to pay for incarceration. And it’s also a win for communities because prison takes an emotional toll on an inmate’s loved ones, not just the inmate themselves.

Giving inmates access to Pell Grants doesn’t decrease the amount of Pell Grant money available to those who aren’t incarcerated. diZerega says eligibility is based on income.

Congress has put in safety measures to protect inmates from predatory higher education institutions – for-profit schools that often drain a student of their grant money without providing a quality education. diZerega says colleges looking to partner with a correctional facility have to demonstrate that credits can be transferred elsewhere, if needed. They also need to show that they won’t steer a student into a career path in which they’re ineligible because of their criminal past.

diZerega says institutions like Lee College and the University of Houston have long worked with correctional facilities in Texas to provide higher education – whether it’s training in technical skills or academic degree programs.

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Caroline Covington is Texas Standard's digital producer/reporter. She joined the team full time after finishing her master's in journalism at the UT J-School. She specializes in mental health reporting, and has a growing interest in data visualization. Before Texas Standard, Caroline was a freelancer for public radio, digital news outlets and podcasts, and produced a podcast pilot for Audible. Prior to journalism, she wrote and edited for marketing teams in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. She has a bachelor's in biology from UC Santa Barbara and a master's in French Studies from NYU.
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