During his fourth year inside Fulton County, Georgia’s correctional system, Larry Jackson became the subject of an experiment in prison education. The facility needed more medical help, so it started training its incarcerated population. He earned a nursing assistant certification for free and worked primarily as an orderly for the system. But the program was eventually disbanded. By the time Jackson, who entered the system at age 23, was released in 2016, at age 38, his credential had expired, giving him almost nothing to show for his work.
Now, a bipartisan group of advocates hopes people in Jackson’s situation will benefit from a provision tucked into the 5,600-page federal spending bill Congress passed late last year. It lifted a 26-year-old ban that blocked incarcerated people from receiving Pell Grants, federal aid for undergraduates with high financial need. While few incarcerated people have college credentials, many have indicated they want to grow their education while behind bars. The expansion builds on Second Chance Pell, a pilot program that gave financial aid to about 17,000 incarcerated students from 2016 to 2019.
“If I had access to that, I could have gotten a degree that didn’t expire,” Jackson said.
Proponents of the change, which goes into effect by mid-2023, hope it will enable more people to access higher education while incarcerated. But they note that its implementation presents various challenges, including addressing limitations that kept the pilot narrow and avoiding the abuse of federal dollars by seeking more transparency.
From tough-on-crime to Second Chance Pell
The sweeping 1994 crime bill banned incarcerated people from obtaining Pell Grants. In 2015, the Obama administration launched the Second Chance Pell program, which former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos expanded last spring.
Students earned more than 4,500 degrees and certificates through the program as of 2019, said Margaret diZerega, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections director. The 2020 expansion doubled the number of participating colleges to 130 schools across 42 states and the District of Columbia. The latest legislation significantly expands its scope. The Vera Institute has estimated that nearly half a million incarcerated people would be eligible for Pell Grants if the ban were lifted.