Helping Prisoners Build a Better Life: DOE Launches Pilot for Second Chance Pell Grants

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) took a vital step last week to help the over one million people in U.S. prisons build better lives for themselves and their families. The Second Chance Pell Pilot program, which continues the ongoing efforts of the Obama Administration to reform prison policies and reduce recidivism, will test new models allowing incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants to support post-secondary education. By doing so, the administration hopes to demonstrate how connecting incarcerated Americans with educational opportunities can help them prepare for a better life and future by increasing their ability to find quality employment upon release and greatly reducing the likelihood that they will return to prison.

Higher education is a fundamental link to opportunity, especially at a time when a third of all jobs in the U.S. require at least an associate degree, a figure that will increase to 43 percent by 2020. For the past 20 years, however, the federal government has made it harder for incarcerated Americans to access post-secondary education by disqualifying all prisoners from receiving Pell Grants -- a form of financial aid that often makes or breaks a prisoner's ability to pursue educational programs while in prison.

This policy was neither fair nor cost-effective, and research has repeatedly shown that correctional education programs not only improve the life chances of prisoners upon release, they reduce recidivism by as much as 43 percent and save taxpayers four to five dollars in re-incarceration costs for every dollar invested in such programs.

Programs that help set prisoners on a better path are an indispensable part of breaking the cycle of imprisonment and recidivism -- propelled by America's history of mass incarceration and the many barriers that prevent prisoners from finding quality employment upon release -- that have plagued too many communities, especially low-income communities of color. As a nation with more than 1.5 million of its citizens behind bars -- three out of four of whom will end up back in the system within five years of release -- it is imperative that the federal government take action to help prisoners prepare for and thrive in their lives post-incarceration.

PolicyLink applauds the Obama Administration's leadership on this initiative and its continual work to connect boys and men of color to opportunity though the "My Brother's Keeper Task Force," which was instrumental in putting the issues of the rights and education of incarcerated youth at the forefront of the prison reform debate.