Pell Grants For Prisoners Could Save Illinois Millions

By Lee V. Gaines
Goucher College students participate in a lecture at Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup on July 31, 2015

Illinois could save millions of dollars on incarceration costs if the federal ban on Pell Grants for inmates was lifted, according to a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice. Pell Grants are awarded to low-income undergraduate students to help them pay for college. The report, called “Investing in Futures: Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison,” cites numerous economic and other benefits to states across the country if prisoners were able to apply for and receive federal Pell Grants.

Inmates, who had previously been eligible, were barred from receiving Pell Grants under the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed into law by then-president Bill Clinton. The federal government estimates that about 23,000 incarcerated people lost access to Pell Grants.

Since then, research has shown that more education behind bars reduces recidivism rates and saves states money on incarceration expenses. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education introduced the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which provided Pell Grants for about 12,000 inmates nationwide. The report from Vera, however, estimates that almost half a million incarcerated people would qualify for the grants if the federal ban were lifted — including roughly 16,000 potentially eligible Illinois inmates.

Currently, only about 9 percent of inmates participate in some form of post-secondary education while behind bars, and only 2 percent earn an associate’s degree while incarcerated, according to report.

The report estimates that Illinois could save between $8 million and $26 million annually on incarceration costs if the Pell Grant eligibility were restored to inmates. The report also estimates that earnings for inmates are likely to increase once they’re released from prison, and more education for those who are incarcerated will translate into lower crime rates after they return to society. The report also argues that businesses will have a more educated pool of applicants to choose from if more inmates are able to enroll in college while in prison.

Margaret diZerega, one of the co-authors of the report, is hopeful that Congress will eventually reinstate Pell Grants for prisoners. She said the concept has bipartisan support, and increasing interest among those advocating criminal justice reforms.

“There’s support for this. I think there’s a lot of interest from employers in thinking about how to have more people with the skills they’re looking for. If we can provide access to these opportunities, I think many people will benefit from them,” she said.

Key facts from the report:

  • 64 percent of people ages 18-74 incarcerated in federal and state prison had, at most, a high school degree or equivalent in data collected between 2012 and 2014.
  • The majority of incarcerated people are academically eligible to advance to post-secondary level courses.
  • The report estimates that expanding access to education in prison would result in a $45.3 million increase in combined earnings of formerly incarcerated workers during the first year after release.
  • The report estimates that more access to education will result in decreased recidivism rates. The decrease in recidivism is projected to save states a combined $365.8 million per year on incarceration costs.

This story was produced by Lee V. Gaines with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.