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Increasing Opportunities for Prisoner Education with the Restoration of Pell Grants

In a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, access to education within the prison system is unevenly dispersed. Increasing prisoners’ access to education during incarceration is an important aspect of leveling the playing field for reentry into society. Equal rights to a quality education needs to be a high priority in order to combat the negative socio-economic consequences of the stigma surrounding formerly incarcerated people.

Especially in the age of mass incarceration in which a large portion of the victims were young adults, many prisoners do not hold a high school diploma or GED. This reveals the importance of policy and the law as being crucial factors in prison education programs, and how there needs to be both federal and state-level policy changes to help support programs and expand their resources. The elimination of Pell Grants in 1994 during the peak of the “tough on crime” period was disastrous to education programs within prisons. It eliminated hundreds of programs that allowed prisoners to get a college degree while being incarcerated. The institutionalized discrimination that was prevalent in the government’s policies created disparities by promoting the idea that convicts should be locked up for minor things, kept in prison for longer, serve full sentences, and not get an education that could potentially increase their chances for employment once they do get out. It is clear that the government’s social and economic views have had a significant influence over policy implementation that promoted the maintenance of control over prisoners even after they have served their time by limiting their ability to gain employment and lead a normal life.

This major barrier prevents formerly incarcerated people from seeking employment and can increase their chances of recidivism. In a country that has an increasing demand for highly-educated and skilled workers, prisoners have to work especially hard to overcome these obstacles. This involves furthering their education while being incarcerated, but depending on where they are serving their time, this may not be entirely feasible. When Pell Grants were eliminated, many programs in maximum security prisons across the country suffered and creating a safe classroom environment was extremely difficult to obtain. While the criminal justice and prison systems are flawed in many ways in that they fail to acknowledge and alter the structure of imprisonment selection and perpetuate white supremacy while simultaneously suppressing the rights of people of color, there is potential for repair and justice for those who have been burdened. The restoration of Pell Grantsin 2020 will hopefully bring about more education programs and opportunities for individualized tutoring sessions that can help prisoners receive a standard high school degree or even begin to work towards a higher degree. This, in turn, could help address the inequality problem in the labor workforce for formerly incarcerated peoples.

If more prisoners are obtaining and education, they have a better chance of gaining employment following their release. However, there still lies the issue of the social stigma of having a criminal record debilitating employment opportunities. The positive impacts that educating prisoners could have on their access to employment could be greatly impacted by employers’ bias against applicantswith a prior criminal record. The right to education can now start to be upheld with the re-establishment of Pell Grants and the social stigmas of incarcerated peoples can begin to be altered. Clearly, the unregulated control policymakers had over prisoners’ education was an effective strategy used to continue to maintain social control over incarcerated people and debilitated them from obtaining success in the workplace. Still, adopting Pell Grants is the first step towards preventing the continuation of racial characterization will hold the governmental more accountable for the protection of its’ citizens’ education rights while also attempting to shift the social stigmas.

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