The Rev. Vivian Nixon remembers the first time she met with the Justice Department to brainstorm about ways to keep people from returning to prison once they got out. It was 2010, and she was one of a handful of formerly incarcerated people at the table.
“They actually asked us what is important,” said Nixon, the executive director of the New York-based College and Community Fellowship, which helps women get access to education after incarceration. Among the group’s suggestions were restoring Pell grants for prisoners. The grants help low-income students pay for higher education and were available for prisoners until 1994, when Congress banned inmates from the program.
Congress hasn’t changed its mind, but at the urging of advocates like Nixon, the Department of Education under former President Barack Obama greenlit a pilot program in 2015 that extended Pell grants to thousands of inmates. But every year the department must decide whether to continue the pilot, making its fate uncertain.
“We had an administration that embraced reform,” Nixon said. “Now they don't return my calls.”
Unless lawmakers reverse the 1994 ban or the Department of Education gives a new go-ahead, many of the roughly 4,000 inmates currently enrolled in a Pell-funded program are likely to lose access to college classes and vocational training at the end of the year.
There are some indications that legislators are open to supporting Pell in prison. Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander — who lambasted the program’s re-launch in 2015 as an unfair end-run around Congress — said in February he would consider reinstating the money through congressional action. But a measure to restore the program introduced in February by Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, currently has no Republican support.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told reporters in February that supporting Pell grants was "a very good and interesting possibility” before adding that "obviously the department is not real involved with criminal justice reform issues." Last year, DeVos' department continued Pell funding for prisoners for the 2017-2018 school year. A department spokesman did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Marshall Project.
Prison education, at least in some limited forms, has typically bridged the ideological divide. In 2008, then-President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act, which expanded funding for state and local governments to provide education and vocational training in prison.
“On the liberal side it is an issue of rehabilitation, and on the right it is about redemption,” said John Linton, the director of correctional education in the Department of Education under Bush and Obama. “Not just writing people off but letting them receive services that let them develop as people.”
A poll taken this year and commissioned by Justice Action Network, an Ohio-based prison reform organization, found that 92 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans agree the criminal justice system should be rehabilitative, focused on helping inmates become productive citizens once they are released.
But withholding money also has bipartisan appeal. When Pell grants were initially banned, both Democrats and Republicans argued it was unfair to divert money from law-abiding students. In 1994, roughly 23,000 inmates were receiving a total of about $35 million in Pell funding. That comprised less than 1 percent of $6 billion awarded to students that year.
“Just because one blind hog may occasionally find an acorn doesn't mean many other blind hogs will,” former Tennessee Rep. Bart Gordon, a Democrat, argued before Congress in 1994. “Certainly there is an occasional success story, but when virtually every prisoner in America is eligible for Pell grants, national priorities and taxpayers lose.”
Gordon, who introduced the 1994 ban, now says he was responding to rampant fraud among higher education providers. Too often, he said, for-profit schools received the federal money, which is paid directly to the school, but provided little to no education to students.
“Tuition would be priced at whatever the highest Pell grant was,” Gordon told The Marshall Project. “Some of the programs were legitimate. But others were not interested in educating prisoners, but getting Pell grants.”
In 1994, there were roughly 900,000 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. By 2016, the prison population had grown to 1.5 million.
Research shows that prison education can help keep people from returning to prison. A 2013 meta-analysis conducted by the RAND Corporation and funded by the Department of Justice found that inmates who received an education while incarcerated were 43 percent less likely to be arrested for another crime than those who did not participate in any education programs.
But research hasn’t been able to answer what kind of education has the best outcome. Some argue vocational programs that teach a trade such as welding or plumbing would help newly released people the most. Others argue that college programs prepare people for work in a rapidly changing economy. The Obama administration’s Second Chance Pell offers a mix of both in 69 sites in 27 states. Advocates had hoped the diversity would be an opportunity to study the differences.
“The question wasn’t, ‘Does education work?’” Nixon said. “It’s, ‘Which type provides the best success rate?’”
As the Pell program winds down, there is still no clear answer. In order to get around the congressional ban, the Obama-era program was funded through a complicated maze of Pell grant cash and Department of Justice funds. Neither pool came with money to study the implementation.
Without research documenting Pell’s successes, many administrators and advocates worry they won’t be able to make a strong case for overturning the ban. The end of Pell could force schools to scale back their offerings or end the programs all together. Of the 69 colleges and universities chosen, 60 percent already had some form of prison education program in place, funded mostly by private dollars. The remaining 40 percent were new programs, like the one at Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland.
Marcus Lilly took college classes as part of the University of Baltimore’s Second Chance Pell program at Jessup. He was released in December after serving 13 years for attempted murder, and now takes classes on the school’s Maryland campus.
“College gave me a more positive outlook on myself,” he said. “I realized I didn't have to be what everyone in my community told me when I was growing up. My classes opened up a new world outside of East Baltimore.”
These programs stand to lose the most if Pell goes away. Tuition for students at Jessup is paid almost entirely by the federal money. While Lilly was the first student in his program to be released from prison, he was one of 30 incarcerated students working towards their degrees. Ending Pell could mean they won’t be able to finish their program, which Lilly says is unfair.
“We have the opportunity to educate prisoners and make the system centered on rehabilitation,” Lilly said. “The majority of guys I took classes with were good dudes, who studied hard. I don't feel like I am an exception to the rule.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story said the Pell grant program for prisoners was set to expire at the end of 2018. The program does not expire, but funding must be renewed every year.