1. Update
  2. Criminal Justice

Education Can Restore Hope for Incarcerated Individuals

By Joe D'Antonio, September 30, 2019


The 1994 crime bill, formally known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, reframed the U.S. attitude towards criminal justice. Instead of compassion and rehabilitation, the focus shifted towards being “tough on crime.” Through numerous cuts and changes, the 1994 crime bill extended this “toughness” to the treatment of our incarcerated population. One target of the bill was education: After 1994, incarcerated individuals could no longer access Pell Grants.

Now, 25 years later, momentum is building to reverse this damaging policy. On Sept. 17, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration collaborated with the Unlock Higher Ed coalition to sponsor a briefing about restoring higher education opportunities to incarcerated students.

Pell Grants, which are federal subsidies for college education, help to unlock the potential of incarcerated individuals. Dr. Chris Beasley, the co-founder and president of the group Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates, discussed the role that higher education plays in rehabilitation. “It's not enough to tell people to ‘stop being’ something. They need to have something to move toward,” he said.

The hope that higher education gives to incarcerated individuals translates into real world benefits.

The hope that higher education gives to incarcerated individuals translates into real world benefits. Research shows that the recidivism rates for those who obtain a bachelor’s degree drop by 28 percent. This lower recidivism rate can help to save state and federal corrections facilities $365 million.

According to Rick Raemish, former executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Pell Grants also improve the lives of the staff at correctional facilities, not just the incarcerated individuals they serve. “Pell Grants restore hope, and hope makes a safer and more secure environment for everyone in an institution—both [for] those incarcerated and the staff,” he said. “When we take Pell Grants away, we are punishing ourselves.”

Raemish went on to explain that when mentors inside correctional institutions have access to secondary education, they can help to influence others to improve themselves while incarcerated. Syrita Steib, the founder and executive director of Operation Restoration, echoed this point. She told stories from her own incarceration, highlighting how others would help maintain a quiet and nurturing environment for her to study in when she was receiving secondary education.

The benefits of restoring access to Pell Grants are clear. This one step would go a long way towards unlocking the potential of incarcerated individuals nationwide while simultaneously lowering the societal costs of recidivism. Urge your member of Congress to cosponsor the REAL Act (H.R. 2168/ S. 1074).

Background Bill Analysis: The Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act 

Analysis of the REAL Act

The REAL Act (H.R.2168 /S.1074) can lift the ban that keeps the incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated from reaching their full potential.

Joe D'Antonio

  • Program Assistant, Criminal Justice and Election Integrity

Joe D’Antonio is the Program Assistant for Criminal Justice and Election Integrity. His primary responsibilities include lobbying members of Congress, writing policy updates, and conducting legislative research.