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Overview of Prison Education Policies

“The challenge before us today is to bring higher education back. I pray that you will rise to this challenge and reverse the negative program cutbacks that our government, so blinded by ignorance, has imposed on prisons, people incarcerated and society at large.” – Anonymous college graduate, Fishkill prison, New York

Higher Education Act and Pell Grants

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act, which allowed people in prison to begin receiving Pell Grant funding for college courses in 1972. Pell Grant funding created the opportunity for college education behind bars because it awards federal student aid for postsecondary education on the basis of financial need. Given the preponderance of low-income people in the prison system, many individuals have been able to use Pell Grants to fund their postsecondary pursuits while incarcerated.[1] By the early 1980s, 90 percent of the nation’s prisons offered higher education programs. Even so, these programs received less than 1 percent of total Pell Grant funding.[2]

Elimination of Pell Grant Funding

Beginning in the 1980s, state and federal spending for correctional education began to decline as a tough-on-crime attitude became a national trend. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, making incarcerated people ineligible to receive Pell Grants and eliminating their access to postsecondary prison education. The legislation effectively ended post-secondary education in prison. Within a few years, “virtually all of the approximately 350 programs around the country shut down for lack of funds.”[3] By 1997, the majority of reporting correctional systems indicated that the loss of Pell Grants had eliminated most, if not all, of their college course opportunities for incarcerated students.[4]

Funding Gains and Threats

Recent policies have revived some federal funding for prison education programs.

Four years after the elimination of Pell Grant eligibility for people who are incarcerated, Congress enacted the Workforce and Community Transition Training for Incarcerated Youth Offenders (IYO) Program, which provided funding to cover the costs of postsecondary education and employment counseling for incarcerated youth.[5] And in 2007, President George W. Bush signed into law the Reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, revising key components on the IYO statute and making more people eligible for postsecondary prison education funding.[6]

In 2008, the Second Chance Act funded various reentry programs for people who are formerly incarcerated. The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP)reports that the act appropriated nearly $90 million for a wide range of education programming, a portion of which went toward prison education programs.

Despite renewed federal funding, however, even the modest gains made by prison education programs are in jeopardy. State prison systems bear the ultimate responsibility for implementing education programs and policies, and state budgets have rarely been tighter. The IHEP warns that overstretched state budgets threaten the ability of states to maintain funding commitments to prison education programs in spite of federal grant funding.[7]



[1] Laura E. Gorgol and Brian A. Sponsler, “Unlocking Potential: Results of a National Survey of Postsecondary Education in State Prisons,” Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2011

[2] “Education in US Prisons Throughout History,” http://www.timetoast.com/timelines/32856

[3] Prison University Project, prisonuniversityproject.org

[4] 1997 Corrections Education Survey, Corrections Compendium, http://www.aca.org/publications/ccjournals.asp

[5] Ibid

[6] Gorgol and Sponsler, 2011

[7] Ibid

  • National Directory of Prison Education Programs

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