Prison Education Loses Funding

A Dream Deferred: The Elimination of Pell Grants to Prisoners

After the establishment of Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners in the 1960s, correctional education programs saw tremendous growth. Program enrollment flourished because inmates were motivated to complete degrees. Almost three decades later, however, the Clinton Administration promulgated legislation aimed at removing Pell funding for incarcerated persons.[1] Conflict in the public sphere concerning correction and education had forced major change of course. Economic interests and political forces complicated the education of offenders. Legislation around the curtailment of correctional education funds blurred the direction for prison reform, countervailing previous activists’ ideas about the purpose of such programs. What began as development of incarcerated individuals’ potential had transformed into “tough on crime” punishment.[2]

Incarceration rates were on the rise before, during, and after the Clinton Administration. Two years after Bill Clinton won his first presidential election he passed the 1994 Omnibus Crime bill, which aimed to cut crime through mandatory sentencing, a three-strikes clause, and removal of funding for rehabilitation including Pell Grants for education. In general, Clinton targeted criminals with severe punishment. The motive was to make examples out of criminals by punishing them as harshly as possible in the expectation that crime would gradually diminish. This perspective did not consider the consequences of excessive punishment, however. Instead of reducing crime, this legislation effectively raised the crime rate and rendered at-risk persons more likely to face incarceration. Education has traditionally been seen as a great equalizer of opportunity in America, but in the Clinton administration educational opportunity for prisoners was radically undercut.[3] Reform-minded prison educators lost their footing because of the harshness of Clinton-era legislation.

Public perception of crime and criminality changed during the 1990s. According to political scientist Peter K. Enns, public opinion is central to legislation’s passage and reception. Enns’s Incarceration Nation shows that from 1992 to 2002 there was a dramatic rise in the perception of crime as the most important problem facing the country.[4] The public’s response was to increase the punitive efforts of the criminal justice system by greater support for harsh sentencing and, in some cases, the death penalty. Crime began to be seen as intolerable and criminals as requiring extreme degrees of punishment. Enns’s study at the same time suggests that, although the public’s opinion on crime has become more punitive, less than half of Americans actually support greater punitive efforts.[5]  Shifts in public opinion are complex. While people generally realize that some rate of crime is inevitable, ideas about punishment vary. Meanwhile public opinion on correctional education influences state and federal legislation. Americans’ views are subject to influence both by educators and reformers and by those opposed to reformist efforts.

After public opinion develops, Congress responds. One notorious U.S. senator from Texas, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, was among the first to advocate for a bill to abolish Pell Grant funding in prison.[6] She firmly opposed reformers’ beliefs that recidivism could be reduced and believed that funding for education and rehabilitation was a waste of money. She remarked, “The bottom line is that the honest and hard-working are being elbowed out of the way by criminals.”[7] Huthchinson’s comment worked to eliminate opportunities in education that would better prisoners’ chances of educational equality. Ironically, her native Texas had been the first state to offer such programs to inmates. Others may disagree with her pessimism about criminals, but Hutchinson’s views emphasize that crime—its sources and its solutions—is a source of controversy among both the general public and the politically elite.

The abolition of Pell Grant funding in the 1990s has had important impact on prisons. According to sociologist Michele F. Welsh, the removal of funding has had more negative than positive effects on prisons across the United States. After surveying directors of correctional education, Welsh noted “a significant decrease in access, quality, and success due to the elimination of Pell Grant eligibility for inmates.”[8] She expressed disappointment in the fading of commitment to prison education because the Pell program had lowered recidivism rates until it ended. But Welsh’s research might have been still more affirmative of the value of prison education if she had directly inquired about its value among the constituency it served. Prisoners have opinions about the abolition of funding, but her study fails to note their views. Opinions cannot always be quantified. Previous prison reformers worked from a conviction that human nature being central to development rather than statistical results. Difficulty in measuring effectiveness otherwise than through recidivism rates adds to the difficulty of assessing the success of tertiary education programs for incarcerated persons.

Economic limitations have also stalled prison reform. Incarceration scholar Charles B.A. Ubah points out that Pell Grants were the major source of funding for correctional education and now that funding has become scarce, other problems have ensued. Mandatory sentencing laws have led to prison overcrowding, and Clinton’s reduction of prison education funding forced the hiring of more law enforcement officers inside and outside of prisons, with resulting increase in costs.[9] Further, as Charles Ubah claims, prisoners have been economically stratified after the cessation of Pell Grant funding: “Currently, there are three remaining ways through which inmates can pay for their college education. These three sources of funding include federal Perkins funds, private funds (their own or those of family members), and state-based education grants.”[10] Inmates are divided into those who can afford education and those who cannot.

The broad consequence of the elimination of Pell Grant funding is that convicts may never get the equal opportunity they rightfully deserve. If education is the great equalizer, then prisoners should not be denied the right to further their education. Both public and politicians seem to fear that educated criminals will be more dangerous than their uneducated counterparts. This claim contains little to no truth, as statistics about recidivism and educational levels prove an educated prisoner is a changed prisoner. One incarcerated offender who used to be enrolled in a higher education program before funding became scarce declared “that prison program gave me new life.”[11] While it is difficult to pinpoint the overall cause of crime, convicts cannot completely be excluded from society, because most will eventually exit prison walls, yet correctional education remains directionless as Americans continue to change their minds on perceptions of criminals.

America remains the world’s leading jailer. We have a limited number of options in reducing incarceration. Correctional education has been radically undercut by the Bill Clinton Administration. Future prison reform efforts have taken notice and navigated through drastic changes toward new possibilities.


[1] Robert Tewksbury, David John Erickson, and Jon Marc Taylor, “Opportunities Lost: The Consequences of Eliminating Pell Grant Eligibility for Correctional Education Students,” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 31 (2000): 43.

[2] Jonathan E. Messemer, “College Programs for Inmates: The Post-Pell Grant Era,” Journal of Correctional Education 54 (2003): 32.

[3] Charles B.A. Ubah “Abolition of Pell Grants for Higher Education of Prisoners,” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 39, (2004):74.

[4] Peter Enns. Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World,” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 21.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ubah, 76.

[7] Sheryl Stolberg. “Column One: Schools Out for Convicts: Taxpayers Have Stopped Paying for Inmate’s College Degrees in a Backlash against Prison Reform. Corrections Officials Decry the Loss of a Powerful Rehabilitation Tool,” Los Angeles Times: 1.

[8]Michele F. Welsh “The Effects of the Elimination of Pell Grant Eligibility for State Prison Inmates,” Journal of Correctional Education 53 (2002): 154.

[9] Worth, 5.

[10] Ubah, 80.

[11] Stolberg, 3.