A young male prisoner in a grey sweater sits on the floor of a library reading a book.

By Christopher Zoukis

The connection between education and the likelihood of prisoners returning to prison upon release is clear. According to various studies, prisoners who become educated stay crime-free in the community longer than those who don’t, and the higher the education received, the less the chance of recidivism.

However, there is one major issue that prevents prisoners from getting an education – money. Whether you are behind bars or in society, education cost money – and for approximately eight out of 10 Americans, money is in short supply. One of the reasons is student loan debt.

More than 44 million Americans owe over $1 trillion in student loan debt. This amount of student debt is approximately $620 billion more than Americans’ entire credit card debt. The average student debt load per graduate is $37,172.

Debt can quickly create a downward spiral of not having enough cash for basic necessities, leading to relying on more debt to make ends meet. This is a damaging start for many graduates.

This is where the Pell Grant comes in.

Federal Pell Grants are awarded to undergraduates who have not yet earned a degree. As the program is a grant and not a loan, it does not need to be repaid as long as the recipient adheres to the rules of the grant. The amount for which a student is eligible varies, and the maximum allowable limit changes each year. For 2017/2018 and 2018/2019, the grant was $5,920. However, the amount awarded could be less or more depending on the student’s needs. Under some circumstances, students receive 150 per cent of the maximum to help with summer semester classes.

Receiving thousands of dollars in educational funds is a winning situation for everybody. The student has access to life-changing skills, can go on to innovate and create more jobs in the workforce, and to live with significantly less debt. Education changes lives! Well, unless you are in prison.

Currently, prisoners are not eligible for the Pell Grant, and once again, this brings up the age-old argument of if the prison system should be based in punishment or rehabilitation.

Preparing offenders to function in society upon release is a part of the prison system’s mandate, but restricting prisoner access to the Pell Grant contravenes that very mandate. The Pell Grant is designed to give low-income and disadvantaged students a shot at a better life through education – a life that can contribute to society in positive ways.

In February, education leaders in the Senate met to discuss reinstating the Pell Grant for students in prison.

Senator Lamar Alexander, Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, supports the idea. “Most prisoners, sooner or later, are released from prison, and no one is helped when they do not have the skills to find a job. Making Pell grants available to them in the right circumstances is a good idea,” says Alexander.

To date, a decision on the issue has not been reached and prisoners still do not have access to the Pell Grant. There is comfort in knowing, however, that powerful people are lobbying to make equal access to education a reality for all, and when that happens, the prison system will be much closer to functioning as a the rehabilitation centre it is meant to be.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily NewsPrison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.

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).