The Obama administration is trying to help 12,000 prisoners get college degrees


The Obama administration announced millions of dollars of new investments in college grants and job training programs for people in prisons on Friday, in an attempt to reduce recidivism rates while criminal justice reform legislation is stalled in Congress.

The biggest move is a $30 million expansion of Pell Grants—which fund college education—for prisoners around the country. The Department of Education chose 67 colleges and universities that will partner with 141 state and federal prisons to enroll about 12,000 incarcerated students in educational and training programs.

Most of the schools selected are public universities which will offer prisoners a mix of classroom and online education. They will be able to get associates and bachelors degrees, as well as certificates for careers like welding, carpentry and business administration. Only inmates who are eligible for release will be able to access the expanded grants.

Congress banned Pell Grants for incarcerated people in 1994, cutting off the only way many prisoners are able to afford to get a degree. But the Department of Education asserted its authority to provide the new grants—which build off a pilot program started last year in a single prison in Maryland—under a provision of the Higher Education Act that allows it to use some funding for “experimental programs.”

The new grants could have a significant impact. A 2013 study from the RAND Corporation found that inmates who participated in education while behind bars were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years. That means that for every dollar invested in correctional education programs, four to five dollars are saved on re-incarceration costs, the study estimated.

“We all agree that crime must have consequences, but the men and women who have done their time and paid their debt deserve the opportunity to break with the past and forge new lives,” John King, the Secretary of Education, told reporters in a conference call.

Dallas Pell, a nonprofit executive and the daughter of Claiborne Pell, the Rhode Island Senator who created Pell Grants, said her father would be proud of the move to make the grants more widely available to prisoners. “Access to education while in prison is hugely beneficial to the individual, his or her family, and his or her community, especially to the community upon their release,” she said.

The Department of Labor also announced $65 million in grants to create job training programs in prisons around the country. About half of that money  will go specifically to programs designed for adults aged 18 to 24. Other grants will support work release programs for people getting out of prison, new job centers inside correctional facilities, and career training for young people at risk of dropping out of high school or becoming involved in the juvenile justice system.

“We’re squandering an opportunity by not giving people with a criminal record a second chance,”  Secretary of Labor Tom Perez said in the conference call. “Why wait for inmates to be released to give them the support they need to enter the workforce?”

In addition, the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $8.7 million in grants to fund permanent supportive housing programs and reduce homelessness, addressing a correlation between homelessness and incarceration. The programs will help people who often end up spending nights in local jails and shelters get a permanent place to live.

The new funding initiatives come as Obama has less than seven months left in office. His administration has urged Congress to pass criminal justice reform legislation that would reduce mandatory minimum drug sentences and speed the release of nonviolent federal offenders. But while there is bipartisan support for some of those ideas among many lawmakers, no bill has passed in either house of Congress.

“What we would like to do is see those bills move forward as quickly as possible,” said Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s top advisors. “We are going to do everything we can to work with the members on both sides of the aisle to make sure it comes to fruition.”

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.

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