John Jay College Officials Back Obama Administration Action on Restoring Pell Grants for Prisoners

grants_storyJohn Jay College of Criminal Justice President Jeremy Travis has praised the Obama Administration’s plan for an experimental restoration of Pell education grants for incarcerated adults, a move that would end a two-decade ban on such federal subsidies. The plan was announced on Friday, July 31, by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, during a visit to the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup.

“In the 21 years since Congress barred Pell Grants for incarcerated students, our nation’s prison population has skyrocketed, while too little recognition has been given to the needs of the overwhelming majority of those who reenter society after their prison terms,” President Travis said. “And, of all the prison-based services that have been defunded, inadequately funded or banned outright, a college education for people convicted of serious crimes has the potential to make the most difference in their lives and well into the future. Today’s action by the Obama Administration offers a powerful and long-overdue endorsement of the important role that higher education can play in the prisoner-reentry process.”

Pell Grants for prison-based college education were banned under a provision of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The latest action announced by Duncan and Lynch would be taken under the law’s experimental-sites program, which gives some colleges limited exemptions from federal financial aid rules. Full restoration of Pell Grants to prisoners would require a vote by Congress.

During a recent higher education policy speech, Secretary Duncan said the administration wants to do more to develop experimental sites that would make Pell Grants available “to incarcerated adults seeking an independent, productive life after release.” President Travis and others — including Congressional co-sponsors of a bill to restore Pell eligibility for federal and state prisoners — have pointed to a 2013 study by the Rand Corporation that found that those who participate in correctional education programs are 43 percent less likely to return to prison after their release.

“This administration has taken an important step toward reframing the question many have been asking, which is ‘Why should we offer college education to those incarcerated?’” President Travis observed. “What we should be asking is, ‘Given our country’s values — our belief in the autonomy of the individual, the power of the American dream, the transformative potential of learning, and the possibility of a second chance for those who have violated the law — on what basis would we NOT offer college education to those incarcerated?’”

John Jay College’s Prisoner Reentry Institute has been in the vanguard of many prisoner-reintegration issues, including college education for the people in prison. For the past four years, through its Educational Initiatives area, PRI has operated the Prison-to-College Pipeline (P2CP) program, which brings accredited undergraduate courses to men at the Otisville Correctional Facility in upstate New York, as well as developmental and remedial education to men preparing for release from the Queensboro Correctional Facility. The P2CP program has been generously supported by the David Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation and New York State Legislature.

On July 1, the College Initiative, a New York City nonprofit organization that provides educational support for men and women with criminal justice histories, became part of PRI’s Educational Initiatives unit. “We at PRI and John Jay know that education is transformative,” said Ann Jacobs, the institute’s director. “Like our merger with College Initiative, the Obama Administration’s action regarding Pell Grants creates an important opportunity to dramatically increase the number of people who are able to move beyond having a criminal record, come to college and succeed.” Below are two stories of students in the P2CP program who are turning their lives around.

Robert enrolled in the inaugural class of the Prison-to-College Pipeline in August 2011. An exceptional student, he received an A in both classes he took while incarcerated. Robert left Otisville Correctional Facility in September 2012 after completing a 10 year sentence. He also left with 6 college credits and a community made up of CUNY faculty, staff and students who were there to support him. While navigating the early months of his reintegration—including living in a residential program, searching for employment and navigating parole requirements—Robert stayed in regular communication with his John Jay network of support. He frequently came to campus to sit in on classes, meet with faculty and staff who worked with the program and build a network to ease what is often a very challenging experience for someone after a decade of incarceration.

Through partnerships he made while a student in our program, a faculty member assisted Robert in obtaining his first job. Within a few months, Robert’s Parole officer allowed him to move out of the residential program and in with his long-term girlfriend. Close to three years after his release, Robert has many accomplishments to be proud of. He was quickly promoted in the first job following his release and recently landed a new job with a better salary. In the fall of 2013, Robert enrolled at John Jay College. He currently has a 3.85 GPA and has earned 39 credits towards a Bachelor’s degree in English. He still lives with his girlfriend and is looking forward to graduation, marriage and speaking out in support of fair access to higher education.

Aaron (not his real name) enrolled in the Prison-to-College Pipeline’s first cohort in August 2011. Prior to enrolling in the program, Aaron had already exhibited leadership qualities during the 18 years he spent incarcerated in New York State. He struggled to to pass the entrance exam in writing, which limited his ability to earn credits with the other students in his cohort. Instead of dropping out of the program, Aaron audited classes and worked diligently with faculty and his peers for the next three semesters before successfully passing the test. He is currently accruing credits and maintains a 3.85 GPA while working at the facility as a clerk in the Educational Department. An avid learner and strong advocate for higher education, he regularly encourages his fellow students and reaches out to men in the High School Equivalency classes at the facility. In his words, “John Jay helped me see that I could be more…do more and contribute to my community”. Aaron is eager to be released and looks forward to continuing his education in the community. Until that time, he continues to make valuable contributions to increase the intellectual life of the prison.

These stories are small examples of the value of higher education in prison and the dedicated students who enroll in these programs. Without question, the benefits of higher education are the same for a student that is incarcerated as they are for a student in the community. Higher education enables citizens to better support their families, compete in the workforce and contribute to their communities.