Congress Votes to Lift Ban on Pell Grants for People in Prison

Restoration of Pell eligibility ensures that all incarcerated people can access life-changing education

WASHINGTON, DC -- Lawmakers in Congress voted today to lift a 26-year-old ban on Pell Grants for people in prison. The restoration of access to Pell Grants means that incarcerated people can once again apply for federal Pell Grants in order to pay for college courses.

Access to education is transformative, and today’s bipartisan vote will improve community safety for everyone while also opening a new chapter of opportunity for incarcerated people and their families, marking a step toward increasing equity for Black and brown communities. The measure lifting the ban was included in Congress’ year-end omnibus appropriations bill.

Evidence that access to postsecondary courses in prison improves lives and communities is overwhelming and has been further demonstrated by the success of the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative.

Nicholas Turner, president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice, released the following statement in response to this historic vote:

“The Vera Institute of Justice is overwhelmed with joy and gratitude that more people in prison will now be able to access higher education. We thank leaders in the Senate, House, and Obama and Trump administrations for working tirelessly to right the wrong of the Pell ban, and the partners and formerly incarcerated advocates whose leadership, willingness to share their stories, and constant guidance have been essential to this effort.

Allowing people in prison to access higher education is a critical step toward a more equitable society, especially for Black and brown people who have historically been sentenced to prison at higher rates and trapped in cycles of incarceration. Pell Grants are one of the most straightforward and effective ways to create opportunities for incarcerated people and to strengthen their families and communities when they come home.

Lifting the ban on Pell Grants has been one of Vera’s most important policy goals. We look forward to working with more corrections departments and colleges across the country to ensure that the life-altering opportunities of higher education are available to all eligible students.”

Since 2015, as part of the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, Vera has provided technical assistance to the participating college in prison programs. There are now 130 colleges in 42 states and the District of Columbia participating in the initiative, through which incarcerated students have earned more than 4,500 bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees, postsecondary diplomas, and certificates.

From the beginning of this effort to increase access to Pell Grants for people in prison, Vera has

followed the lead of formerly incarcerated students, who deserve to be celebrated as the real champions of this fight. Boris Franklin, who was incarcerated in New Jersey and earned credits toward a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Rutgers University while in prison, says, “I know from firsthand experience that education is the best way to invest in the full potential of people in prison. Earning my degree has helped me get a better job and improve my family’s future while contributing to my community. I’m thrilled that now all people in prison will have the same opportunities to further their education.”

Vera was proud to partner with College and Community Fellowship, Drug Policy Alliance, Prison Fellowship, the Unlock Higher Ed coalition, and many others over the past four years on this successful effort to restore access to Pell Grants. Over that time period, support and endorsements from countless other organizations and individuals have been instrumental, including higher education groups, law enforcement organizations, businesses, chambers of commerce both big and small, and many others.

Vera especially honors and acknowledges Fred Patrick, who joined Vera in July 2012 to launch its work on postsecondary education in prison. In 2015, he was named director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections, which he led until his passing in July 2019. This victory for justice would not have been possible without his steady and kind leadership.

About the Vera Institute of Justice:

The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and research that inspire change in the systems people rely upon for safety and justice. Vera collaborates with the communities most impacted by these systems and works in close partnership with government and civic leaders to implement change. Across projects, Vera is committed to explicitly and effectively reducing the burdens of the justice system on people of color and frames all work with an understanding of our country’s history of racial oppression. Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, providing legal services for immigrants, and ensuring that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. Vera has offices in Brooklyn, NY; Washington, DC; New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

Related Content