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A stack of books in a prison room.

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With the restoration of Pell Grant funds for incarcerated students this summer, there’s an opportunity—and an obligation—to improve access to higher education among America’s prison population.

More than 700,000 incarcerated individuals are estimated to be eligible for Pell Grant funds as of this past Saturday, July 1, marking the first time men and women in prisons have had broad access to Pell Grants since 1994, when Congress voted to deny these funds to incarcerated individuals. (Since 2015, a federal pilot program known as Second Chance Pell has allowed access to Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals enrolled in programs offered by a select group of participating colleges.)

Nearly all incarcerated people—at least 95 percent—will get out of prison one day and re-enter society, according to the Office of the U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Georgia. While many colleges and universities already do transformative work in this space, we now have an opportunity to impact even more lives with the availability of more federal funding.

Increasing access to college classes for incarcerated students will have a broad societal benefit, especially among underrepresented groups, since Black Americans are imprisoned at approximately five times the rate of whites. Among prison populations, 38 percent are Black versus 13.6 percent in the general population.

Each year, more than 700,000 people are released from state and federal prisons across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Education, including postsecondary education, is a critical lifeline for their successful re-entry into society, and a powerful inoculant against recidivism.

Consider this factoid: the rate of functional illiteracy among adult inmates is estimated at 75 percent, according to the Correctional Education Association. Education develops the skills and credentials to position formerly incarcerated individuals to get back on their feet. Among those who have participated in prison education programs, there is a 43 percent decrease in the rate of recidivism, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Some universities are already extending their mission to include those in prisons. Penn State’s Prison Journalism Project provides an outlet and a voice to more than 600 incarcerated writers in 195 prisons across the country. In Los Angeles, the UCLA Prison Education Program brings faculty and students to “learn alongside” incarcerated individuals, “thereby challenging bias, discrimination, and injustice in a shared and collaborative learning experience.”

In 1997, Temple University criminal justice professor Lori Pompa started the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. This pedagogical model brings incarcerated and non-incarcerated students together to learn side by side in prison. Students collaborate on projects and participate in themed discussions similar to the engagements you’d expect in a robust classroom experience. Since the program was founded, more than 160 colleges and universities around the nation and world have sponsored Inside-Out training and courses. This includes the institution I lead, as the program has become a critical window into the criminal justice system, and into the societal determinants of crime and poverty for Quinnipiac University students.

Prison outreach has a long-standing history at Quinnipiac, dating back to the 1970s. Today, the Prison Project is an interdisciplinary group of faculty, staff, students and allies driven to improve social justice and reduce mass incarceration through education, advocacy and re-entry work. Our faculty teach inside several state prisons, among them the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, a maximum-security facility and the largest prison in New England. Our School of Communications is piloting a four-course certificate in communications there.

These are just a few examples of the life-changing work initiated across higher education. For some incarcerated individuals, classes in prison are a diversion, a 60-minute escape from the numbing routine of a prison cell. For others, these classes are a very deliberate restart, an entry point into a job, an income and a second chance toward a long-term life outside prison.

We must acknowledge as the nation with by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, and with 3 percent of the population having been imprisoned at one time, we have much to do. Colleges and universities improve societies in a myriad of ways. We can add “creating hope and opportunity among incarcerated individuals” to our purposes. Now, with broader access to Pell Grants, let’s double down on that purpose and really change lives. For prisoners seeking a place in the world, let’s show them that a college classroom is a great place to start.

Judy Olian is president of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

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