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Inmates get $30 million in grants for college

Flickr- Joe Crimmings

Twelve thousand prison inmates will be able to work toward a college degree with the help of federal Pell Grants starting next month.

The new grants will be made available to inmates who are set to be released within 5 years and will help cover tuition, school fees, and textbooks.

The program, called Second Chance Pell Grants, sets aside $30 million, about 0.1% of the overall amount of annual Pell grants.

This effort is a reversal of a 1994 crime bill that barred inmates from receiving financial aid and furthers the president’s commitment to fixing a broken prison system.

The US prison system stands out in for many reasons — few of them good. While in lots of European countries, incarceration is viewed as an opportunity to heal and empower people, the US has a system known for beating, demoralizing, and generally depriving people.

The US has the highest rate of incarcerated people in the world. It also has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world.

Recidivism is so common because ex-convicts face a staggering amount of restrictions when they get out of prison that keep them from getting jobs, finding housing, applying for welfare and accessing countless other fundamental parts of life.

Ex-convicts are essentially branded as non-citizens when they leave prison and, through desperation, often wind up back behind bars.  

Fortunately, there is a bipartisan movement to change this as people recognize how much human potential and tax dollars are wasted by the current system.

As Obama’s action recognizes, access to a college education is a good place to start. Prison inmates are far more likely than the general public to have not graduated high school. Providing a path to an education and potentially a career could break the vicious cycle that leads to repeat arrests and repeat stints in jail.

The program also, more fundamentally, could provide inmates with the self-esteem they need to recognize that they are people worthy of a better future. And, for the broader public, it sends the message that prison is not just a place of punishment, but also a place for improvement.

The Rand Corporation found that educational programs reduced recidivism by 43 percent for convicts and that every dollar invested in prison education saves four to five dollars on future incarceration costs.

It’s not like this will be the first education program to be extended to prisons. There are many colleges that offer robust courses that transform the potential of inmates. But this recognition on a federal level that education should be available to prisoners could set forth a wave of additional investments on the state level.

If you want more convincing that education in prison is a good thing, watch this TED Talk by Damon Horowitz.