Restore Pell Grants and Expand Education in Prison

Prison-based education can substantially improve the prospects of people returning to society. A meta-analysis that was conducted by RAND in 2013 and updated in 2018 found that incarcerated individuals who took part in postsecondary education programs were 48 percent less likely to recidivate than those who did not participate in such programs. The study, spanning the period between 1980 and 2017, also found that the odds of being employed after incarceration were 12 percent higher for people who had taken part in any vocational or educational programming while in prison. Some question the fairness of spending money to educate people serving time in prison when those who have not committed crimes struggle to pay down their college debt. But it is hard to question the return for public safety: by reducing recidivism, taxpayers save $5 for every $1 spent on prison education. Education programs make prisons safer too, for those incarcerated and also for correctional officers and other staff. Nearly 60% of people who serve time do not complete an educational program while in prison, and only 9 percent complete a postsecondary education program during their incarceration. One key reason for this gap is a lack of funding. The vast majority of postsecondary educational programs for incarcerated individuals would be supported by Pell Grants, but the 1994 Crime Bill removed access to these benefits. Reflecting growing recognition of the benefits of correctional education to incarcerated people and their families and communities, the U.S. Department of Education in 2015 launched an initiative that provides need-based Pell grants to a limited number of individuals imprisoned in state and federal facilities. The Task Force supports expanding this pilot effort and restoring Pell eligibility while increasing other educational opportunities for people in state and federal prisons. Greater educational attainment by those behind bars would improve public safety, help fill gaps in the nation’s workforce, and improve economic potential for people and their families.


Federal agencies should provide individuals incarcerated in the federal system fully funded resources to complete evidence-based literacy, primary, and secondary education programming, and restore Pell Grants to provide justice-involved individuals access to continuing education, including vocational and post-secondary coursework.

Implementation Steps

  1. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) should use FIRST STEP Act assessment tools to identify education levels and develop educational plans for all individuals in the federal prison system, beginning with newly admitted people and extending to the current population (prioritized by remaining sentence length).
  2. Congress should support and expand sentence-reduction credits, like those awarded for completion of residential substance abuse treatment programs, to individuals who successfully complete educational programming matched to their need.
  3. BOP and the Department of Education should establish quality assurance requirements and standards that ensure educational service providers are appropriately accredited before they gain access to incarcerated students and/or public funds.
  4. BOP should provide justice-involved individuals access to continuing education, including vocational and post-secondary coursework.
  5. Congress should reinstate Pell Grant eligibility to pre-1994 Crime Bill standards for the following: a. Incarcerated individuals in both state and federal facilities b. Individuals convicted of drug-related offenses
  6. BOP and the Department of Education should assess and evaluate the facilities where education services are currently provided and make improvements where necessary.

Annotated Citations

Washington State Institute for Public Policy, Benefit-Cost Analyses. December 2019, This meta-analysis of evaluations of basic correctional education programs found that the net benefits outweigh the costs by $11,207 per participant. It concluded that the chances that benefits will outweigh costs are 97%. “Correctional education in basic skills consists of classes in Adult Basic Education, General Educational Development (GED) preparation, and English as a Second Language. Classes are delivered in a prison setting and vary in length of enrollment depending on the individual’s education level, purpose or program of attendance, and length of incarceration. This meta-analysis does not include post-secondary (college) correctional education classes.”

Pompoco, Amanda, et al. “Reducing Inmate Misconduct and Prison Returns with Facility Education Programs.” Criminology & Public Policy, vol. 16, 22 May 2017. This study of Ohio prison education programs found that incarcerated people who earned GEDs or completed college classes were less likely than those not in programs to engage in violence during incarceration, while completion of vocational training and apprenticeship programs had no such effect on any type of misconduct examined. On the other hand, completing vocational training, apprenticeship programs, GEDs, or college classes at any point during incarceration coincided with lower rates of prison returns within three years after release. None of these benefits accrued to incarcerated people who started but did not complete these programs and classes. The provision of GED programs and college classes to people in prison may help to reduce levels of violence during incarceration, providing safer facility environments for those behind bars and staff. GED programs, college classes, vocational training, and apprenticeship programs also may help offenders avoid recidivism by providing knowledge and skills that enhance their employability in desirable jobs after release. The absence of comparable findings for incarcerated individuals who started but did not complete these activities underscores the importance of completion, providing incentive for state policymakers and correctional administrators to encourage people in prison to complete these pursuits.

Earhart, Jim. “Overcoming Isolation: A College Program Challenges Prison Culture through Engagement,” Saint Louis University Public Law Review, vol. 33, no. 2, 2014, p. 329. Education has a wide-ranging impact on correctional facilities. A wealth of studies on the effects of education in correctional facilities provide support for the “effectiveness of higher education in prison.” In fact, there are proven benefits of education even for those who are not likely to be released. These programs help reduce the deterioration of mental health of incarcerated individuals caused by poor conditions of confinement, including forced isolation.

Hrabowski III, Freeman A., and Jeremy Robbi. “The Benefits of Correctional Education,” Journal of Correctional Education, vol. 53, no. 3, September 2002, pp. 96-99. This study found that correctional education reduces rates of recidivism and saves taxpayers money by reducing the number of people incarcerated at correctional facilities. It focuses on three studies. One found that a noticeably lower recidivism rate was attributable to literacy education in Arizona prisons. A second study, in Maryland, showed widespread benefits from correctional education programs. A third study, in Texas, documented a 15% recidivism rate for parolees who had college degrees, compared to an overall recidivism rate of 60%.

Taylor, Jon Marc. “Pell Grants for Prisoners: Why Should We Care?” Straight Low Magazine, vol. 9, no. 2, 2008. Written by an incarcerated person, this powerful article summarizes the varied justifications for providing Pell Grants to assist with education for those behind bars. In the year prior to this article, approximately “one-half of one percent of all awards went to prisoner-students.” This fact cannot be divorced from the corresponding fact that “less than half of ex-offenders find full-time employment, while three-quarters of college educated parolees find steady employment at family sustaining wages.”

Wright, Mary C. “Pell Grants, Politics and the Penitentiary: Connections Between the Development of U.S. Higher Education and Prisoner Post-Secondary Programs.” Journal of Correctional Education, vol. 52, no. 1, March 2001, pp. 11-16. Wright cites Pell Grants as one of the three largest factors in the growth of the prison higher education system. She discusses the importance of understanding historical and cultural factors when analyzing the evolution and current state of post-secondary education in prisons.

Messemer, Jonathan E., “College Programs for Inmates: The Post-Pell Grant Era,” Journal of Correctional Education, vol. 54, no. 1, March 2003, pp. 32-39. This study asked the 50 state correctional education directors about the existence and funding sources of in-house college programs for people in prison. Absent Pell Grants, only half the states had such programs. They were funded by state and federal governments, corporations/organizations, nonprofits, educational institutions, prison budgets, and in some cases through support by incarcerated people. The study found that access to education had a statistically significant correlation to a state’s population and the rate of higher education attainment in that state.

Szifris, Kirstine, et al. “A Realist Model of Prison Education, Growth, and Desistance: A New Theory.” Journal of Prison Education and Reentry, vol. 5, no. 1, June 2018. This article provides a literature review for sociological theory surrounding correctional education, evaluating different characterizations of the role education plays in the sociology of prisons. It finds that education provides a hook for change and a means for identity change, allows for the gaining of skills and qualifications that can validate this emerging identity, and acts “as a ‘safe space’ for prisoners to spend time in a positive, pro-social environment and develop a different social identity.”