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A Passport to the Future

Restoring Pell grants for incarcerated students is long overdue. But without meaningful infrastructure, true freedom will remain elusive.


In 2016, Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, began offering classes at the prison where one of us had been incarcerated, as part of a Second Chance Pell pilot program being conducted in the state. Though limited, this was a reversal sorts of the cruel and backward thinking of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, signed into law by then President Bill Clinton, which, among many other harms, barred Pell grants for incarcerated students. At that point, I, Abraham, had been imprisoned for 12 years, spending up to 20 hours a day in a cell. I and many others credit the Second Chance Educational Alliance for removing higher education access barriers by offering free college classes.

But I was not chosen for the first round of the new program since I didn’t meet release criteria. I had to wait another year to be eligible. The ineligibility broke my heart, but it also awakened the advocate in me. In 2017, I began classes inside MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, and I thrived. I was an excellent student who achieved high academic honors. What this meant for me was an educational awakening that led to my transformation. I’d found my mission: to help expand access to higher education as a tool for change and eliminate any restrictions and barriers that I, my co-author Norman, and many others had faced.

During that time, as a student advocate, I wrote letters and essays and spoke with a state senator and corrections commissioners in support of the expansion and full reinstatement of Pell grants for incarcerated students. In 2020, when the news about the FAFSA Simplification Act made it inside the prison walls, I felt as if a burden had been lifted. It felt like a victory after a yearslong battle. A 26-year ban was finally no more, and that meant that incarcerated people now had a choice to take the path that until then was not offered to the great majority of prisoners.

That was then, at the tail-end of the prior administration. A glaring irony now is that President Joe Biden, both during his campaign and as president, championed the reinstatement of Pell grants for people in prison, disavowing his own legacy in the Clinton-Biden crime law and offering hope to those voters who believed his promises on criminal justice. This time around, a hope of many advocates was that the same attention to detail and coverage that Biden’s destructive crime bill received would now be given to the FAFSA Simplification Act and its implementation. Had that happened, it could have been seen as an acknowledgment of, and an attempt to make amends for, what effectively amounted to the destruction of millions of lives. Instead, what transpired fell far short of expectations.

The 1994 crime bill, enacted at the height of our crisis of mass incarceration, was a brutal betrayal of communities of color. This mammoth federal law, which had devastating downstream effects in states and communities, was one of the most destructive, carceral tools in American history, furthering the destabilization Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples — at the time already suffering from enduring systemic racism, disinvestment, and criminalization brought on by the war on drugs, among other ills. In short, the goal of the crime bill was to incentivize building an infrastructure to incarcerate millions with billions in federal funds, bolstering the U.S. carceral state far beyond any other country in the world. To add insult to injury, the bill accomplished another barbarous goal: Tucked in it was a provision that stripped access to higher education for the imprisoned, which has long been a proven tool in reducing reincarceration.

One would think that the current spate of reforms, beginning with the FAFSA Simplification Act, should surely be pointed toward building a prison educational system that works for incarcerated students — not to legitimate our already monstrous prison system, but to blunt and chip away at all the harm already done. To ensure people have a shot at getting back all that imprisonment and removal from their communities already took from them.

To this end, Pell restoration, in principle, must also prioritize building a 21st-century infrastructure to support and further higher education in prison — by putting the needs of incarcerated students at the forefront. With the elimination of Pell in 1994, the natural evolution and modernization that took place in higher education never reached inside prison walls. Instead, no Pell access meant 26 years of reliance on contempt and punitive measures to control prison populations, not to educate them. Thus, the government still has a long way to go to provide tools and training to reverse the methods it funded in the past.

Pell restoration, in principle, must also prioritize building a 21st-century infrastructure to support and further higher education in prison — by putting the needs of incarcerated students at the forefront.

Yet that’s not what’s happening. Ending the Pell ban alone was a good start, but this measure, without more, does not go far enough. The reinstatement of Pell, legislatively and practically, misses the mark in that it lacks any clear infrastructure for implementation, let alone clear official guidance to disseminate to people on the inside. The restoration also doesn’t quite meet the ballooning costs of higher education since the original ban went into effect. All of this contributes to growing confusion about a program that, at least on paper, was supposed to lift people up.

The U.S. Education Department, with few exceptions, is wholly unfamiliar with the process of education behind bars, and that dearth of knowledge is most visible in its refusal to truly hear and acknowledge many of the concerns of program alums, current students, program administrators, program faculty, and education justice advocates. If the department heard from them, officials might learn that the most powerful and informed voice in this conversation is that of the person on the inside.

One way the agency’s ignorance is made manifest is that it doesn’t put technology in the hands of learners. The government instead puts the burden on higher education providers and corrections departments to figure things out. Congress could provide policy statements and funding to bring corrections up to speed on the latest curricular and technology advancements. On its own, though, Pell barely covers the cost of tuition in the world outside prison walls, since it caps out at around $6,000 per semester. Whatever isn’t funded, colleges and universities are made to shoulder. At the barest of minimums, additional federal dollars should be earmarked for the basics: hardware, software, and high-speed internet. That is not happening. If Congress sees Pell re-reinstatement as a tool for re-entry and to lower recidivism, it must invest in quality education. Prison, for all its harmful effects on communities and criminogenic aspects, can be a place of learning. In other words, this could be money well spent, unlike the billions that are spent on corrections without any real return on that sort of investment.

If the federal government were serious about hearing from directly impacted voices to inform policy, it should take cues from the New England Commission on the Future of Higher Education in Prison, to which the two of us belong. Its mission is “to develop an action agenda, policy recommendations, strategies, and next steps to align corrections and higher education institutions.” Its members are the commissioners of the region’s all six states’ departments of correction, policymakers, industry leaders, and most importantly, formerly incarcerated people who continued their education once they were released — together, they have a combined 191 years of carceral experience. The commission, which is aligned with MIT and the New England Board of Higher Education, understands that the voices of people insidehave a perspective that is vital to the success of higher education programming behind bars, which translates into success on the outside.

And Pell fits within this paradigm nicely. At a recent commission meeting in Cambridge, 13 formerly incarcerated comrades worked alongside corrections commissioners, policymakers, and others about how the reinstatement could work on the ground. We discussed a wide range of higher-ed-behind-bars topics including access, cost, and what alternative funding would be needed to expand access beyond what is now possible. Beyond Pell implementation, people like us could also speak to the need for re-entry help from institutions of higher education that serve the prison population. This is the kind of action, beyond just programming, where those formerly and currently incarcerated bring their voices and lived experiences.

More broadly, education in prison needs to look toward the future — or rather, the present — and prepare people for a real world where pandemic shutdowns, the needs of working families, and other life scenarios can make in-person learning impracticable. In this regard, the funding for the necessary infrastructure to create a virtual system of learning is timelier than ever. As the provision of education behind bars increases with Pell restoration, and schools see financial value in incarcerated students, a thoughtful approach to hybrid educational opportunities would be wise and welcome. For one, the capacity for instructors in the outside world to choose hybrid, flexible, and synchronous experiences for their incarcerated students should be widely available. For that to work, as it does in colleges and universities across the nation, incarcerated students would need an infrastructure in place that includes devices such as Chromebooks and wi-fi and broadband connectivity. The cost to operate such a system should not be prohibitive, and the pandemic showed us how critical it is. If school districts can manage, then a prison should, too. And educators, of course, should have the skills and competencies to teach virtually.

When discussing whether to continue investing in programs that pay for education and support those who otherwise cannot afford it, it would behoove us to remember, above all, that education is not a privilege; education is a right. Many people fought and even died for it, and that fight had no caveats or carve-outs when it came to educating those behind bars. That includes Pell itself, which, as originally conceived, did not discriminate against people in prison. “Education is an important element in the struggle for human rights,” Malcolm X said in 1964, just one year before the Higher Education Act opened the door to millions who before couldn’t afford a college education. “It is the means to help our children and our people rediscover their identity, and thereby increase their self-respect. Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs only to the people who prepare for it today.”

Having helped millions of students pursue higher education as an avenue for social and economic mobility, the impact of the federal Pell grant is undeniable; however, we also know that access to Pell alone, even for students on campuses out in the free world, is insufficient to create, develop, and sustain the delivery of high-quality curricula and degree programs. It is our firm belief that the government alongside higher education institutions must resolve the implementation of technology in the classroom and ensure accountability and equity in how higher education providers and state corrections departments go about their college-in-prison partnerships.

Time is of the essence. Without this commitment, incarcerated students, once again, will remain at the mercy of not only educational institutions that exploit Pell allowances by offering low-quality programs, but also correctional agencies not being good-faith partners in this endeavor. Indeed, enforcing existing barriers, or adding new ones, would ring of bigotry, discrimination, and a complacent state — that is, one of ambivalence toward the freedom of people on the inside. Our passport to the future lies in full and meaningful access to education for everyone currently incarcerated, without which the pursuit of human rights, and true freedom, cannot exist.

Image: Vino Li/Unsplash