For nearly a decade, Vera’s work to expand access to quality postsecondary education in prison has been a cornerstone of our commitment to affirming human dignity behind bars and advancing racial equity. Incarcerated people who participate in postsecondary education programs have 48 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not. As incarcerated people achieve higher levels of education, the odds of recidivism decrease. The RAND Corporation estimates that every dollar invested in prison-based education saves taxpayers $5 from reduced incarceration costs. This could, in turn, cut the cost of state prison spending nationally by hundreds of millions of dollars every year, freeing up funding for solutions that prevent, rather than react to, crime.

To increase the number of incarcerated people who can access education, Vera and a coalition of allies led a successful four-year campaign to get the federal government to reverse its ill-advised ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students. Incarcerated people earn pennies an hour—or nothing—for work that they do in prison. Without financial aid, college education has been completely unaffordable for nearly all of them.

In July 2023, for the first time in nearly three decades, all incarcerated people who are academically eligible will be able to apply for Pell Grants to help fund their college educations. Vera estimates that 760,000 people in prison could benefit and is working to ensure that high-quality education is available to them.

Since 2016, the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (SCP) has provided Pell Grants to students at select state and federal prisons. Vera has served as the technical assistance provider to colleges and corrections agencies participating in the program, which has expanded over the last five years to include 200 colleges across 48 states, plus Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. More than 28,119 incarcerated students enrolled during the first five years of SCP. In July, Vera convened colleges and corrections departments from across the SCP network. This in-person gathering provided the opportunity to welcome the newest SCP colleges, selected in April 2022, and to highlight strategies to promote equity, quality, and scale within college-in-prison programs.

The opportunity to access higher education in prison helps not only students but also their families and their communities. Ninety-five percent of people in prison will return home. With a degree, they are better positioned to secure well-paying jobs, provide for their families, and reintegrate into their communities.

Jessica’s Story

Jessica Henry is set to graduate from college in the spring of 2023 with a bachelor's degree in social work and a double minor in business and psychology. She received her associates degree in general studies from Jackson College while incarcerated at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Michigan. She was one of 9,000 students who earned credentials through SCP. Next year, she will begin pursuing a master’s degree in social work.

“I took all the classes I could take and got all the degrees I could get. I just absorbed every ounce of knowledge I could absorb while I was there. . . . I had been through so many things in my life—juvenile delinquency, foster care, teen pregnancy, addiction, rehab, therapy, prison, jail, probation, parole. And I’m like, ‘Why did I go through all this?’ And now I know why. It’s because I can help those who are struggling or going through similar things . . . to make changes one step at a time.”
—Jessica Henry
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Credit: Jessica Henry/Nation Outside