Pell Grant Myth Busters: Why Pell in Prisons Isn't as Controversial as You Think

It's hard to describe what access to education means for someone currently incarcerated. For many, it offers the chance to feel human and normal in a place that can seem to leave no space for independent thought. Its proven link to lowered recidivism shows that education leads to better choices, and more importantly, it instills the self-worth inside incarcerated students to believe they are capable of more.

On Friday, The Department of Education and Department of Justice announced an Experimental Sites Initiative (ESI) that will temporarily waive the current ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated Americans. It is a right taken away from incarcerated students almost twenty years ago through the Clinton administration's 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. A decision the former president has publicly admitted cut in-prison college programs from 111 to 11 shortly after its passage.

Since the announcement of its temporary reinstatement was leaked, a media storm on its perceived controversy has emerged. The conversations tend to drift between frustration towards President Obama for taking executive action without Congressional consent, and anxiety from Americans struggling to pay for college education due to staggering costs of tuition.

After reading several articles surrounding the Pell ESI announcement, and their accompanying reader comments, it is abundantly clear that many are misinformed about Pell Grants and the extent to which incarcerated Americans use the funds to pay for college.

Below I have compiled some of the top myths delivered by commenters, in order to dispel rumors and allow open, accurate, and informed conversation about criminal justice reform and higher education:

Myth #1: Expanding Pell eligibility will decrease the amount of Pell funding available for tradition students.

Comment: "So hard working, law-abiding citizens who can't afford to send their children to college, will be paying for the college degrees, of imprisoned, law-breaking criminals. Who are these people who come up with this stuff??"

The Truth: Senator Claiborne Pell, father of the Pell grant, created them to aid low-income students. The 1965 bill stated that no qualifying low-income persons would be excluded. The Pell grant program is a quasi-entitlement and receives whatever funding is necessary for Grants to all income-eligible persons. Prior to the ban, incarcerated individuals received $35 million of the $6.3 billion available for the program. That is less than six-tenth of one percent of the total funding for Pell Grants at the time. Therefore, offering Pell Grants to incarcerated students does not take away grants from other students, it simply offer access to ANY American meeting qualification requirements, regardless of whether they are incarcerated or not.

Myth #2: Incarcerated Americans should only receive vocational education as they will not find employment in other fields.

Comment: "Better yet, give them skills they can use to get a good job: welding, carpentry, plumbing, etc. Face it, Levenworth isn't going to be churning out scholars any time soon."

The Truth is that 92 percent of employers ask questions pertaining to an applicant's criminal history. Court-involved applicants face significant barriers to employment and on average formerly incarcerated community members make 30 percent - 40 percent less than non-court involved workers over the course of a lifetime. However, returning citizens who participated in post-secondary education have higher rates of employment and are not limited to trade positions. Courses in liberal arts prepare returning citizens for a range of careers. In fact, College and Community Fellowship, of which I serve as Executive Director, is an organizations devoted to helping formerly incarcerated women continue their education post-release. In our 15 years, we've supported formerly incarcerated women on their paths to earn more than 300 degrees, and are proud to have nurses, lawyers, and social workers among our list of alumnae.

Myth #3: Incarcerated people should do unskilled labor and pay for college like everyone else.

Comment: "How about this: I see huge amounts of unskilled work being left undone - inner cities, roadways, and waterways filled with weeds and trash, invasive species of fish, plants and insects in rivers and lakes and forests. Allow the non-violent criminals to participate in this work while remaining prisoners (with needed security measures in place), and use the proceeds the prison gets to pay for college courses."

The Truth is that prison labor has been used in communities for decades to provide free labor and often to offset the high cost of incarceration. In California, they help clean state parks, and at the California Institution for Men, some perform underwater welding work. In Hunterdon County, N.J., they clear dead deer off local and county roads to ease the costs of roadkill removal. At least 37 states have enacted laws permitting the use of prison labor by private enterprise; the average pay is $0.93 to $4.73 per day. Individuals incarcerated and working in Federal prisons can earn $0.23 - $1.25 an hour. Close to a million incarcerated individuals are working full time yet the wages are so low that they cannot afford to pay for in-prison college programs.

While the cost of post-secondary education is an issue that needs to be discussed and remedied we cannot conflate the issues and cede opportunities to reform the broken prison system. The Education from the Inside Out Coalition, of which College and Community Fellowship is a founding member, supports full reinstatement of Pell Grants for incarcerated Americans and encourages members of Congress to pass the Reinstating Education and Learning Act (REAL) introduced this year by Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D- Md).