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Inside The Effort To Give Inmates Access To Federal Student Grants For College


Inmates are among the least-educated people in America, and yet few prisons offer opportunities beyond a GED. This is despite research that shows education is one of the most effective ways to keep people from coming back to prison. NPR's Elissa Nadworny visited a facility in Alabama that is piloting a program that uses federal funds to help inmates get a college degree.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: At Staton Correctional Facility, just north of Montgomery, hand-painted signs lead the way to a small classroom. Inside, a dozen or so inmates are leafing through the folders they use for their college classes taught by faculty at nearby Auburn University. For an English class, students have written essays based on the prompt, why do I matter?

D: A lot of us don't understand why we matter because...

NADWORNY: An inmate that goes by the nickname D reads from his essay. We're not using full names, at the request of Alabama prison officials. We were also barred from asking about their crimes. Teacher Kyes Stevens reads her feedback on D's essay.

KYES STEVENS: Be mindful of sentence structure. Jumbled sentences can get in the way of powerful thoughts.

D: I know I tend to do that, but sometimes, you know, writing - you're trying to put everything in the...

NADWORNY: These classes, they're part of Second Chance Pell, the pilot program that opens up federal Pell Grants to inmates. That's money for college that low-income Americans are eligible for. Until 1994, Pell Grants included inmates. Then, Congress and President Bill Clinton banned that money from going to people in prison.

RUTH DELANEY: The change in 1994 was a pretty big change.

NADWORNY: That's Ruth Delaney from the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent nonprofit.

DELANEY: It came about in a period of tough-on-crime rhetoric, tough-on-crime policy...

NADWORNY: And a wave of high crime rates. But times have changed.

DELANEY: There's been a revisiting of this tough-on-crime approach. Is this really how we want to respond to crime?

NADWORNY: Now it's more common to hear the phrase, smart on crime. There's also been a lot of new research highlighting the benefits of prison education. So three years ago, the Education Department started an experiment - open Pell Grants back up to a select group. Today, there are about 5,000 inmates participating, working towards certificates and degrees all across the country. At Staton, inmates say their college classes have got them thinking about their future. After all, only a small percentage of people in prison serve life sentences. Most will be released.

BJ: Just 'cause I'm locked up doesn't mean my mind has to be locked up.

NADWORNY: BJ is one of Kyes Stevens' students. In his English class, he got really into reading nonfiction.

BJ: That's what education's about - being able to understand so you can be understood.

NADWORNY: Students say they do hear grumblings from guards, from people on the outside. Prison should be punishment, they've heard.

STEVENS: It actually drives me crazy that we spend so much time qualifying why human beings need access to learn.

NADWORNY: That's Stevens, who runs the Alabama program.

STEVENS: People want to learn, period. Teach them, period. It actually does not have to be more complicated than that.

NADWORNY: And prison education is gaining support, both at the state level and at the national level. It's cheaper to pay for education up front than to rehouse inmates when they reoffend. President Trump is a fan, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has expressed support and so, too, have congressional leaders in both parties. And that's important because in order to make Second Chance Pell a permanent policy, Congress would have to sign off.

As inmates shuffle out of the classroom, a cheerful student who goes by Sug tells me about his daughter, who's now in the sixth grade.

SUG: When her and I talk on the phone, we talk about school. We talk about, hey, you know, make sure you pay attention in class.

NADWORNY: They compare report cards and talk about homework. And when she gets up to go to school, he says, she knows her dad is getting up to go to school, too. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Elmore, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.