Pitfall in path to Pell Grants

The recent announcements of the pilot project restoring Pell Grants to qualified inmates has been greeted almost universally with praise; there is no question that the positive social and economic outcomes of this initiative will be huge.  But while we should certainly applaud these measures, we must remember that there’s an important step that becomes before inmates can even think about accessing college courses, let alone the grant system: the GED.

However, as a recent piece in the Guardian highlights,  tens of thousands of inmates in United States correctional facilities are waiting just to take GED classes. Functional literacy rates among prisoners are astoundingly low when compared to the general population; I cannot count the number of times I have been called on in FCI Petersburg to help inmates read and or draft even the most basic of documents.

As I outline in College for Convicts, within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, it is a requirement that prisoners either earn a GED, or spend an equivalent amount of time in classes. This likely conjures up images of prisons filled with classrooms where inmates spend their days behind desks. But given budgetary restraints and increasing cutbacks to prisons the reality is that in institutions like mine, less than 10% of the population are actually able to access the GED program. Many prisoners will spend their entire time behind bars on a waiting list to get in. New testing methods for obtaining GEDs were enacted in 2014 using computers, which will help streamline efforts, but unless a prisoner has basic computer proficiency, again we’re putting the cart before the horse.

When we have a population of people who are eager and willing to improve their situation, to leave these institutions with the intention of helping others, why wouldn’t we afford them that basic right—and it is a right under Federal Bureau law.

So if we want the recent changes to the Pell Grant system to have real meaning in our criminal justice system, let’s also make sure that we ensure that the building blocks for accessing them are also in place. If we are committed to seeing these programs succeed, to producing the results that lead to decreased recidivism, strong social networks, and healthy communities, we need to give prisoners the tools to make that happen. And to do that, we must keep the pressure on Obama to take a serious look at basic education funding in correctional institutions as well.

As the old adage goes, “celebrate today, but fight tomorrow.”

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