Advocates push to renew Pell grants for prisoners, citing benefits of higher education


Sekwan Merritt, 30, is pictured during a politics class at Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup, taught by Eric Singer. Goucher College, a private college in Baltimore, has spearheaded a relatively unusual prison education program in which male and female inmates at state prisons in Jessup are able to enroll in college classes with college professors. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
December 3, 2013

Nearly 20 years ago, Congress ended a notable federal effort to support higher education behind bars.

Inmates of state and federal prisons became ineligible for Pell grants through a provision of the 1994 omnibus crime bill that President Bill Clinton signed into law. The House, then controlled by Democrats, approved the provision on a vote of 312 to 116 in April that year.

The majority on that vote argued that it was unjustifiable to give aid to prisoners when ordinary citizens were having trouble paying for college. Dissenters said that prisoners received a tiny fraction of annual Pell funding and that none of the grants they received took money away from other eligible students.

As of April 4, 1994, according to an Education Department document, 3,327,683 students nationwide had received Pell grants in the 1993-94 school year. Of them, 25,168 were prisoners — fewer than 1 percent. The funding total for prisoners at that date, nine months into the school year, was $34.6 million out of $5.3 billion for the program overall.

The end of Pell grants for prisoners was part of the historical background for a Washington Post article on privately funded initiatives to bring liberal arts education into prisons. Goucher College, in the northern suburbs of Baltimore, in January 2012 became the latest private liberal arts school to do so. Its professors are teaching in two Maryland prisons in Jessup. Other schools in what is known as the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison are Bard College, Wesleyan University and Grinnell College.

Some prison education advocates have pushed in recent years to reverse the 1994 congressional action, arguing that it is foolish to cut funding for a program that tends to help prisoners find productive employment, and stay out of trouble, when they are released.

These advocates face big hurdles. Funding for numerous government programs has been squeezed in the past few years. Prisoners have almost zero political clout in Congress.

In April 1994, the House debate featured this sort of quote: “Law-abiding students have every right to be outraged when a Pell grant for a policeman’s child is cut but a criminal that the officer sends to prison can still get a big check,” said then-Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), according to the Congressional Record.

It’s almost certain that similar views would be raised instantly if Congress were to debate the issue again.

But that hasn’t stopped Dallas Pell from speaking up for prisoners.

Pell is a daughter of the late U.S. senator Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), a longtime champion of federal aid for needy college students whose name is synonymous with the grants. Pell, 63, of New York, has made it her mission to support reinstatement of the Pell grants for prisoners.

“When people get out of prison, the overwhelming majority of people who have gotten education in prison, they’re so profoundly changed,” Pell said. “They go into their communities. They go into social work. . . . It’s in everybody’s best interest to have people come out [of prison] that are rehabilitated and feel good about themselves.”

Pell added: “We have talked to lots of people in Congress.” But she acknowledged that her cause has gotten little traction among lawmakers. “It’s such an emotional issue,” she said.

Pell said that she routinely invokes her father’s name as she presses her case. The senator, who helped lead the movement in Congress in 1972 to establish what were first called Basic Educational Opportunity Grants, died in 2009. The grants were named for him in 1980 to recognize his advocacy.

“I’m very proud of my father,” Dallas Pell said. “People do take my calls. It has nothing to do with me. It has to do with my father’s whole idea and concept. If there’s any way I can be used so that we can further effect change, I’m very happy to go to as many meetings and enlighten as many people as possible.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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