Editorial: Pilot education program essential to re-entry

The path after incarceration can soon lead forward, rather than in a circle. Now, that opportunity is coming to Pennsylvania.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education launched the $30 million Pell pilot program in an attempt to give incarcerated Americans access to high quality education programs. Under the program, incarcerated Americans are eligible to receive Pell Grants in order to pursue postsecondary education.

On Friday, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that four of Pennsylvania’s institutions of higher education will become part of the program. Among the 67 colleges participating in the program are Bloomsburg University, Lehigh Carbon Community College, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Villanova University. Each college participating in the program will have 115 inmates from six correctional institutions access the college degree or certificate programs.

Access to education is critical for opening up fundamental opportunities to incarcerated individuals such as employment, housing and self-support, and financial aid is essential for almost anyone who wants to obtain an education and broaden their employment opportunities.

The program addresses a key obstacle preventing incarcerated individuals from ever getting that chance, and we must allow people who have paid their debt to move beyond their mistakes.

In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton approved the provision excluding incarcerated individuals from federal Pell Grants as part of the Higher Education Act. Due to the strict, zero tolerance crime policies of the era, incarceration rates catapulted and lead to where we are today — home of the world’s largest prison population.

Mass incarceration has detrimental, crippling effects on our communities, our states and our society. Instead of being an institution for rehabilitation, the criminal justice system has become a endless punishment cycle for our most vulnerable populations. Communities such as people of color, low-income citizens, those who have a mental illness and the addicted have all been disproportionately singled out by the system.

Pennsylvania residents could benefit immensely from this pilot program, which can then push the program into a policy that gives all incarcerated individuals access to the federal aid they need.

According to the National Institute of Corrections, as of December 2014, Pennsylvania has a prison population of 50,694, which costs an average of $42,339 per inmate annually. The incarceration rate has only been increasing exponentially with a majority of former prisoners ending up back in the jail cell.

While universities may fear that allowing past criminals to attend their institutions jeopardizes their campus safety, the alternative could be worse. Denying access to education could lead them back into the cycles of crime and prison, constraining the entire community these universities reside in.

We should be treating the root causes of their crime — which often comes from poverty, family instability and adversity — not the effects. Chief among these causes is a lack of institutional support, particularly from schools. Education can be the antidote to fight against these debilitating forces.

In the Bureau of Justice Statistics 2005 study, by the end of the five-year follow-up period, approximately three-quarters — 76.6 percent — of American prisoners released in 2005 were re-arrested. The high recidivism rates demonstrate the lack of support and resources prisoners have to build a life for themselves.

Once a person serves their time, they should be able to enter society with dignity and support instead of a life sentence of stigmatization. They served their time, now it’s our job to make sure the sentence is completely finished. This pilot program is one we desperately need, and it comes in response to a policy that shouldn’t have existed at all.

If the Department of Education goes looking for more institutions able to make a difference, hopefully Pitt will be on its list.

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