The True Way to Reform is to Educate: Reinstate Pell for Incarcerated Students

Criminal Justice Reform has been on the minds and tongues of many this year, making what was once seen as a controversial subject become a more common talking point on both sides of the aisle. Politicians like Hillary Clinton, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Conservative Senator Rand Paul and even Oscar winner John Legend are using their voices to call for change in a broken system.

While important movements like the Black Lives Matter campaign continue to keep criminal justice reform in the forefront of our minds, and on the front page of our papers, it is a new move by one congresswoman that has potential to be the real game changer.

Thursday afternoon US Representative Donna Edwards of Maryland, along with the support of five of her colleagues in the House, introduced the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, which would re-grant access to Pell grants for qualified incarcerated students across the country.

Offering Pell grants to incarcerated students is not a new idea. Up until the 1990s, incarcerated students in prison had access to Pell grants, which allowed more than 300 in-prison college programs to thrive in our country. When a "tough on crime" wave hit Washington under the Clinton administration it stopped in-prison post-secondary education programs across the country dead in their tracks. The culprit: the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which banned Pell grants to currently incarcerated individuals, and immediately crippled the once thriving in-prison college programs, diminishing them to merely 12 by 2005.

A big mistake, one even Clinton himself has recently admitted, given the myriad of data that shows in-prison education has a direct link to lowered recidivism, and lessens the stress on public services upon reentry due to the ability to qualify for better jobs. Not to mention an increase in mental health and quality of life in the process.

America has more documented incarcerated individuals than any other country in the world. Forty percent of which are released only to re-offend and end up back in prison within three years. This is largely due to the fact that few programs exist in prisons that properly prepare incarcerated citizens to face the challenges of life on the outside.

As a nation, we spend roughly $68 billion a year on corrections, an estimated $39 billion of which comes directly from the taxpayer. What Representative Edwards understands, is that re-granting federal assistance to qualified incarcerated students will help reduce costs, by educating individuals, so that those involved in the criminal justice system exit with the necessary tools to set and achieve goals that will keep them out of prison and place them on a more positive path.

I see this truth everyday in the lives of the women I work with at College and Community Fellowship, a New York based nonprofit I run, which helps formerly incarcerated women enroll in and complete college and graduate school.

Time and time again I have heard professors praise students who have made the choice to go college during incarceration or post-incarceration, calling them the best in their class. I've watched as our women go out into the world, and see how society views a person with a criminal history record. Our students and alumnae are fully integrated into society, and ready to take back the future for themselves and their families.

Punishment does not lead to reform. If the goal is to punish, then punishment works. But the true way to reform is to educate and provide opportunity. More so, to offer a quality education, one that makes incarcerated men and women utilize critical thinking skills, which will ultimately help cut down on our prison populations across the country. Representative Edwards knows this, and if recent articles are to be believed, President Obama's Administration does too. In addition to Edwards' Act, it appears the Department of Education may soon announce an experimental access to Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals as well.

These are exciting times! Our nation's leaders are finally coming to terms with the mistake of using the criminal justice system as a blunt weapon to deal with social problems. The nation is learning that our prison system must be severely reduced and that, to the extent that the prison system exists, it doesn't have to be a dehumanizing experience; it can be a place where we help build up character, teach critical thinking skills, and encourage people to set goals for the future. Because let's face it, if you really want people to escape poverty, addiction, crime and all the other social issues that keep them marginalized, you've got to create policies that support that vision. This includes equipping them with the intellectual skill-set that education brings.