Op-Ed: Props for learning program that helps incarcerated adults re-enter society

Rebecca L. Watts | August 12, 2021 | Opinion, Education
The federal government is expanding the Second Chance Pell Grant experiment
Rebecca L. Watts

Amid alarming news of the delta variant and ongoing COVID-19 relief efforts, we must not overlook how recent legislation brought about a monumental, generation-defining shift to help people in prison successfully re-enter society.

On July 30, the U.S. Department of Education announced it will expand the Second Chance Pell experiment for the 2022-2023 award year. Launched in 2015, the initiative provides Pell Grants to incarcerated men and women for enrollment in post-secondary education programs provided in state and federal prisons. Through these learning opportunities, incarcerated adults can earn an associate of arts degree, industry-recognized certificates or general coursework that will ultimately boost their opportunities for employment when they re-enter society.

In New Jersey, Rutgers University and Raritan Valley Community College are affiliates in the experiment, with Princeton University and Drew University also offering coursework to incarcerated people through NJ-STEP. The recent expansion will enable more colleges and universities to offer prison-education programs with student financial support from Pell Grants.

In addition to this good news, the federal stimulus package, signed into law in the final days of 2020, eliminates barriers that had prevented incarcerated students from accessing financial support for higher education. The law increases the number of students eligible for the maximum award. U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11), a fierce advocate for Pell eligibility for many years, testified in June in support of the law’s swift implementation.

These landmark decisions amend decades-old legislation and open up opportunity to those committed to rebuilding their lives and contributing to our communities.

Controversial history

More than 25 years ago, amid bipartisan support, a controversial provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 overturned a section of the Higher Education Act of 1965 that had permitted incarcerated citizens to receive a Pell Grant for higher education while they were serving a prison sentence.

In the aftermath of that legislation, prison college programs around the nation were disbanded, disproportionately impacting under-served populations desperately in need of access to higher education — incarcerated individuals preparing to emerge as contributing members of society.

Nationally, 68% of all males in prison do not have a high school diploma, compared to less than 11% of males age 25 and older. For prospective students pursing higher education to improve career opportunities, a lack of a high school diploma looms as a significant barrier to economic prosperity and social mobility. A 2018 study published by the Prison Policy Initiative found that 27% of an estimated 5 million formerly incarcerated people nationwide (1.35 million people) were unemployed at a time when overall national unemployment was about 4%. Renewing access to higher education for prison populations through strong GED preparation programs and the most recent change in legislation will provide skill training that leads to employment, especially for male populations.

Higher education programs reduce incarceration rates and spending. Implementing these programs in prisons has been shown to reduce violence, increase compliance, and lower oversight expenditures, all of which reduce overall costs to taxpayers. Access to education will also improve the very high rate of recidivism, which comes at a price, not just to individuals but to all New Jersey taxpayers. The average annual cost to incarcerate one inmate in New Jersey is estimated to be more than $61,000.

As a Garden State resident, I am proud that New Jersey is one of only 17 states that does not ban students in prison or those with past criminal convictions from receiving state financial aid. In January 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill that allows people incarcerated in New Jersey to apply for state financial aid. State Sens. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) and Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) were two of the sponsors. At the time of the signing, 550 of New Jersey’s people in prison were taking college courses, with an estimated 300 additional inmates eligible to apply for aid.

A record of success

Incarcerated-education programs are more successful in preparing individuals for successful reintegration into society when they are aligned with state workforce needs. Policymakers seeking to develop or implement education programs for felons should also consider the workforce skills most relevant to jobs in their communities and carefully prioritize programs that will provide healthy and stable work environments for individuals re-entering society. Employer demands for relevant, in-demand skills are changing, so New Jersey must develop affordable, accessible education pipelines that align with the state’s workforce needs.

Research shows that removing the federal ban on Pell Grants for people in prison will increase employment rates among formerly incarcerated students by 10% on average. These benefits are exponential, as they help reduce poverty and disrupt intergenerational cycles of crime. Children of incarcerated students are themselves more likely to pursue their own post-secondary degree or certificate.

Now is the time to ensure that all New Jerseyans have access to the education and skills development they need to move away from the past, build a successful future for themselves and their families, and expand the state’s educated workforce — a critical element to building and sustaining a strong economy.

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