Let Prisoners Use Pell Grants

Commencement Day at the Fishkill Correctional Facility campus in Beacon, NY.
Commencement Day at the Fishkill Correctional Facility campus in Beacon, NY.

“Two men looked out from prison bars. One saw the mud, the other saw stars.” – Dale Carnegie

Carnegie’s words metaphorically capture two distinctly different perspectives of inmates contemplating release from prison. What can make the difference for inmates facing an uncertain future both in and after prison? The surprising answer is education.

The benefits of prison education programs are clear. Correctional Association of New York data disclose that, in addition to reduced recidivism, education gives inmates an incentive for good behavior and produces well-read, articulate leaders who have a calming influence on other inmates and even on prison employees. Predictably, the benefits of education continue after a person’s release, and the communities they return to benefit from that as well. A RAND Corporation study found that “For every dollar spent on correctional education, five dollars are saved on three-year re-incarceration costs.”

Education brings hope and new beginnings. I am honored to witness that firsthand.

Earlier this year, Commencement Day was held at the Fishkill Correctional Facility campus in Beacon, NY. With family and friends in the audience, a cohort of 56 men received the Bachelor of Science in organizational management and Associate of Arts degrees in liberal arts and sciences from Nyack College.

We are experientially aware of the benefits of restorative justice and the investment of dollars in prison education and prison reform. Most notably, the recidivism rate of Nyack College graduates from Fishkill is zero percent. To date there has not been an instance of recidivism among Nyack Fishkill alumni.

Like the class of 2019 student speaker who averaged a 3.9 GPA, earning his degree summa cum laude, the majority of men completed the program with distinction—cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude. Perhaps the most moving moment of that Commencement Day filled with poignant moments was when one graduate told me, “I want to put this diploma on the wall and tell my grandchildren, ‘If I can do this, you can do it too!’”

“You can do it,” is not a message that typically accompanies a prison sentence. Along with the obvious struggles of prison life comes the harsh reality of the likelihood of repeated incarceration. The recidivism rate in New York State is more than 40 percent, and some national statistics can soar to more than 60 percent.

Acknowledging the transformative impact of prison education, the U.S. Department of Education selected Nyack College and 66 other colleges to offer the Second Chance Pell Grant as part of a pilot program. Collectively nearly 102,000 prisoners in more than 100 state and federal prisons are served.

How will these higher education opportunities be advanced nationwide? The initiative to re-humanize the lives of men and women who have been locked in and locked out of second chances will need key endorsements. That has already begun.

In December of 2018, Congress passed and President Trump signed the FIRST STEP Act into law. This act provides additional incentives to incarcerated students for program completion, vocational training, and rehabilitation. Restoring and implementing Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated persons with additional legislation, like the bipartisan Restoring Education and Learning Act (REAL Act H.R. 2168) will greatly aid these efforts. The House version was originally introduced by Democrats Danny Davis of Illinois, Barbara Lee of California, and Cedric Richmond of Louisiana and Republicans Jim Banks of Indiana and French Hill of Arkansas. A Senate version is backed by Mike Lee of Utah, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, and Richard Durbin of Illinois. This past summer, the National District Attorneys Association, the largest prosecutor organization in the nation, endorsed the REAL Act.

Opportunities for personal transformation lead to productive citizenship in overlooked communities where public safety has often been threatened by criminal behavior. Access to education and the financial resources for prison education will pave the way for the reintegration of the formerly incarcerated into society.

Every time I place a college degree in the hands of a graduate at Fishkill, I don’t see a man and his past; I see a man and the possibilities for his future. I see someone who can make the choice to see the stars and has the means to do so.

Michael G. Scales is president of Nyack College and Alliance Theological Seminary.

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