Pell Grants for Prisoners Revisited

Lincoln -- As the Nebraska Department of Corrections lurches from one crisis to another -- three of the top seven stories in the Omaha newspaper today deal with this department's problems -- it's appropriate to recall a mistake at the national level that has contributed to prisoner recidivism and overcrowding all across the country.

In the 1990s, Congress cut off Pell grant access for prisoners. Prior thereto, many community colleges and other educational institutions had prison-based programs, paid for by Pell grants for prisoners. After the Pell termination, these programs largely disappeared for lack of funding.

Congressional politicians back then were impressed with an argument made by ill-informed families trying to pay for college: why should prisoners be getting Pell grants when their law-abiding children could not? The issue was twisted into the idea that law-breakers were taking Pell grants away from others more deserving of them.

Except it was not true. No otherwise eligible law-abiding student ever lost out on a Pell grant because a prisoner got one. That's because Pell grants were funded as a quasi-entitlement; one person's grant did not come at the expense of another's. Secretary Richard Riley at the U.S. Department of Education explained this to Congress, but was drowned out by many in the media who thought they had come across a scandal. Politicians who tried to explain the facts to their constituents came off as siding with criminals. So there have been no Pell grants for prisoners for over two decades.

There is now an effort to restore Pell for prisoners. I hope it is accepted. Many in prison could benefit from education and training. It would reduce recidivism and improve public safety. Governors should get behind it. Taxpayers should get behind it as well.

As a Nebraska taxpayer, I am angry about the messes at the Corrections Department and the huge costs required to clean them up. The Pell cut-off many years ago was unwise, but it does not excuse Nebraska for failing to step up with its own education and training programs. Many other states did. In recent years, several other state and local governments have had remarkable success with truck farming and horticulture programs, for example, to get prisoners trained and turned into gainfully employed, taxpaying citizens once they are released. I write this not out of compassion for those serving time for their misdeeds, but from a practical budgetary and public safety standpoint. How many more front-page stories of prisoner escapes, guard assaults, and personnel misbehavior must we read before state officials take the necessary action?