BU’s Prison Education Program Thrives Despite Pell Grant Ban

Back in 1938, inmates were given the opportunity to learn in this prison library.  |  Photo courtesy of the Department of Justice.
Back in 1938, inmates were given the opportunity to learn in this prison library. | Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Justice

Boston University students know their acronyms, and from their college names to where to grab some lunch, it seems as if everything is shortened to a cryptic, insider code. Here’s one that is less known: PEP. Type that into the BU search bar and you’ll find pages on the Pep Band, Professional Education Programs, and Pre-Engineering Programs. But “bu.edu/PEP” will take you to a place where students are less likely to visit: the BU Prison Education Program. Turns out that Boston University is one of the leaders of prison education in Massachusetts, a sector of higher education that has been struggling to stay afloat.

Back in 1994, Congress passed a major crime law amendment which banned prisoners from receiving Pell Grants, a major source of federal aid. The misconception of the time was that giving prisoners Pell Grants reduced the amount of aid available to non-criminals. In reality, according to The Real Cost of Prisons Project, only 25,000 of 4.7 million available Pell Grants had been distributed to prisoners in that year, which comes out to about 0.5% of the funds. Nonetheless, because of the controversy surrounding the cause and the many misconceptions of its use, the aid diminished.

But why should we care if criminals get an education, you say? After all, we all stayed out of prison (for the most part) so that we could go to a university, receive our degrees, obtain successful jobs, etc. Well, according to a report of the Institute of Higher Education in 2005, higher education for prisoners “remains a crucial strategy in efforts to reduce recidivism and slow the growth of the nation’s incarcerated population.” Basically, a higher education provides an outlet for prisoners and gives them options upon release. They leave prison in a better position to hold a job and become an upstanding citizen, rather than revert back to the lifestyle that led them to prison to begin with.

CBS reported last year that the cost to incarcerate a prisoner is up to $60,000 per year in some states. In total, taxpayers fork over $63.4 billion per year to this system. The Bureau of Justice reported a recidivism rate of 67.5% of criminals released in 1994, the year that the Pell Grant funding ceased. That means that over two-thirds of the criminals that left jail were re-incarcerated for continued offense.

Last December, Rutgers University held a conference called Pell Grants and Prison Education: How Pell Grant Access in Prison Transforms Lives. Dallas Pell, daughter of Pell Grants founder Senator Claiborne Pell, spoke in favor of this aid for prisoners and believes that education is a key factor in reducing this recidivism rate. Pell has founded the organization Pell Grants for Public Safety, which takes the stance that providing education for prisoners not only benefits the lives of the incarcerated, but society as a whole. Less recidivism means less crime, and less crime means fewer expenses towards re-incarceration.

The Old Concord Reformatory at MCI, Concord Massachusetts, one of the many prisons where college courses are offered.  |  Photo courtesy of John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons
The Old Concord Reformatory at MCI, Concord Massachusetts, one of the many prisons where college courses are offered. | Photo courtesy of John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons

BU itself has offered over 600 courses, from opera to Greek to marketing, and successful prisoners earn a Bachelor of Liberal Studies in Interdisciplinary Studies. Not just any prisoner can earn this; they must first undergo the Prep Program, a screening program to determine a student’s capacity to handle the workload of a BU student. Students must have a high school diploma or GED, take an entry exam, and take courses in preparation. Once enrolled, students must maintain a GPA of 2.5 or higher.

It is clear why institutes of higher education and the world of academia would see the benefit of educating prisoners – the real battle is finding political support. Politicians are reluctant to allot money to criminals at a time when non-criminals are amidst a student loan crisis and the cost of higher education seems to be rising exponentially. Amidst the financial crisis and job crisis, the flawed education system and the declining health care system, the penitentiary system is yet another reform worth investment.

Emily Payne

Emily is The Quad's Managing Editor. Hailing from the smallest state, she loves the outdoors, photography, indie rock, biking, and all things Irish or organic. She has an addiction to running and can laugh about basically anything. Follow her @erpayne.

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