Permanent Pell In Prison: More Than Twenty Years After It Was Taken Away REAL Act brings hope for Higher Ed in prison

From 1997 to 2001 I was incarcerated, without any way to improve myself. I already had my high school diploma, and some college credits, which meant there were no other educational programs available to me inside the prison I was assigned.

I managed to stay inspired through the tutoring of women in prison who didn't have access to the quality education I did growing up on Long Island. I helped women with their reading, writing, and math; and encouraged them to go after their High School Equivalency, while dreaming of one day finishing my own college degree.

However access to in-prison education wasn't always so rough. From its creation in 1972, up until a "tough on crime" agenda swept Congress in the mid-1990s, Pell Grants, a federal tuition assistance program, were available to all qualified students, no matter if they lived at home, on their own, or in prison.

That changed, when Congress passed the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act as part of the larger Omnibus Crime Bill, that then President Bill Clinton signed into law. The Act excluded students in prison from Pell grant access, and dramatically reduced in-prison education programs from 350 to just 12 by 2005.

This "tough on crime" rhetoric was especially disheartening given the fact that Pell Grants for incarcerated students did not "take away" grants for others. In fact in 1994, at the program's highest rate of usage, the percentage of total Pell Grant funds awarded to incarcerated individuals was 0.0001%--in other words, only 6 cents out of every $10 Pell Dollars went to students in prison.

The removal of Pell in prison was a consequence Bill Clinton himself apologized for last year. However apologies don't go far enough, and it is a time we as a nation separate the notion of punishing the incarcerated, and instead ask how we can equip them with necessary tools to ensure they don't return to prison within three years of release.

This month, advocates rejoiced, when President Obama announced the 141 state and federal correctional institutions who will be able to use Pell grants to pursue two or four-year degrees from one of 67 approved colleges and Universities as a part of the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. However while the initiative through the Department of Justice and Department of Education would reinstate Pell Grants to students in prison, it is only approved for a temporary 5-year term--a good start, but by no means a permanent solution.

Pell Grants were created to ensure every American in this country had the chance to educate themselves regardless of their circumstance or socioeconomic status. No one fits into that category more than many of the two million people currently incarcerated in the United States.

With 95% of individuals in prison one day set to be released, it is essential that we equip them with the critical thinking skills and self-confidence that comes with a higher education.

In the words of the late Senator Claiborne Pell, the founder of Pell Grants, "The strength of the United States in not the gold at Fort Knox or the weapons of mass destruction that we have, but the sum total of education and the character of our people."

So instead of apologies, it would be more impressive if politicians actively showed support for current legislation that would right the wrong taken against incarcerated students more than 20 years ago.

We must support the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, S.3122 which was introduced in the US Senate on June 29th by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), and acts as the sister legislation of H.R. 2521 introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep Donna Edwards (MD-4) last May.

If passed the REAL Act would not only help incarcerated students get a higher education, but it's ripple effects once they return home would lead to decreased reliance on public assistance, increased employment rates, increased public safety, an elevated quality of life for children, and stronger communities.

It's time we get "REAL" and help the incarcerated students of American help themselves to a better future.