In the spring of 2015, the Obama administration made the exciting announcement that it would allow colleges at select prisons to provide face-to-face instruction to select prisoners. Titled The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, it will assist released prisoners “get jobs, support their families and turn their lives around,” according to the Department of Education.

The program, which is not yet operational, will permit colleges and universities to submit proposals to the Department of Education for the 2016-2017 academic year. Once the programs are selected and in operation, prisoner eligibility will be restricted to those who meet eligibility and who will be released from custody within five years.

If enacted, the pilot program would be a great first step towards re-enacting federal funding for prisoners since Congress excluded them from student aid in 1994 (learn more about Prison Education’s Controversial History). However, the administration’s announcement does not mean federal prisoners will necessarily be getting educated en masse anytime soon.

While the U.S. Department of Education and the Obama Administration have the authority to authorize the pilot program, this does not affect general prisoner Pell Grant eligibility. New legislation will need to be passed to permit inmates across the country to actually use Pell Grants for their individual studies outside of the limited number aided by the pilot program. In May 2015, a group of congressmen and women announced their sponsorship of the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, which would make state and federal prisoners eligible for Pell grants. So far, it has received widespread institutional support from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Correctional Education Association, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Legal Action Center, and others. The support is most likely spurred by the dismal state of America’s prison systems and the many proven benefits of prison education. But so far, the Act has not been passed.

So while education for prisoners is certainly not a sure thing, our country does finally seem to be heading in the right direction. Prison education is on the legislative agenda in a way not seen since the 1990s, and for prisoners and supporters, this provides some hope.

Stay up-to-date on prison education news on this website. For more information on how prison education reduces recidivism, how prison education improves communities, the economy, and more visit our Prison Education Facts section.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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