Back in 1994, shortly after 22-year-old Seth Ferranti was sentenced to 24 years in prison for his role as the leader of a drug ring, he took advantage of the Federal Pell Grant in order to get a college education while serving his time.
He was among the last wave of American prisoners to do so.
Even though abundant research found that providing a college education for incarcerated individuals greatly lowers their chances of reoffending, conservative lawmakers—with dubious claims that inmates were depriving law-abiding citizens of Pell grants—ignored the research, denigrated the wishes of the late Sen. Claiborne Pell, father of Pell grants, and in 1994 passed legislation that put the kibosh on federal Pell grants for those behind bars.
Ferranti—now 39, holds an A.A. and B.A., and has become a published author—turned to his parents for the money he needed to continue his college education in prison. But most prisoners, Ferranti says, don’t have such resources at their disposal and would benefit greatly from having Pell grants restored.
“There needs to be something in place to allow prisoners that have the drive and ambition to get a college degree to get it,” Ferranti adds, speaking via e-mail from the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Penn.
“We have all this time to work on something constructive in here and a lot of dudes would do it if it was offered,” he says. “Some people in here made mistakes or lived the only life they knew. If they learned a new way they could definitely change.”
In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law, which banned prisoners from using Pell grant funds. But, Ferranti, who is working on a master's degree, is like others who believe Pell grants should be restored to prisoners.
This month, a small contingent of prisoner reentry support organizations, known as the Education From the Inside Out Coalition, plans to meet with key members of Congress in an effort to get Congress to revisit the idea of making prisoners eligible for Pell Grants.
In 1994, some lawmakers stoked public fears about criminals who were allegedly engaging in criminal activity in order to get Pell grants.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) helped stoke those fears by claiming criminals had discovered “that Pell Grants are a great scam: rob a store, go to jail, and get your degree.” Legislators then attached an amendment to the Violent Crime act that prohibited the grants going to prisoners.
“We know most people who go to prison are getting out,” says Vivian Nixon, executive director of the College and Community Fellowship, a New York prisoner re-entry group for women that is spearheading the effort. “And when they come out, we want them to be prepared in a way that positively impacts the community. Our argument is, one of the things that prepares people to successfully integrate into society is education.”
Glenn Martin, policy director for The Fortune Society, another New York-based prisoner reentry organization, says the time is right to try to get legislation to restore Pell grants passed in 2011. “I don’t think any progressive criminal justice bills are going to pass during an election year,” Martin says, arguing that politicians are reluctant to do anything that might make them appear soft on crime this year.
That wasn’t the stance taken by the late Claiborne Pell, the longtime Rhode Island senator who was largely responsible for establishing Pell grants in 1972, when they were known as the Basic Educational Opportunity Grants.
“As I have often said, education is our primary hope for rehabilitating prisoners,” Sen. Pell said on the Senate floor in 1994. “Without education, I am afraid most inmates leave prison only to return to a life of crime.”
Statistics supports Pell’s view, criminal justice experts say.
“The research is very consistent that post-secondary education has a much greater effect on reducing recidivism among this population than getting your GED,” says Jeff Mellow, a professor of criminal justice at the Prisoner Reentry Initiative of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.
“If we’re really thinking about reintegrating individuals back into society and helping them become pro-social, probably the best thing for your buck you can do is work with them while they’re inside a correctional facility and get them prepared for college courses, and for those who are ready to take college courses, provide college courses for them,” Mellow says.
Mellow adds that the net effect in many cases is only a 10 percent drop in recidivism. “But that’s really great,” he says. “If you go from 40 to 30 percent, that’s substantial savings to society.”
But historically, some lawmakers have not hesitated to cast doubt on the idea that education can help prisoners rebound.
“Just because one blind hog may occasionally find an acorn does not mean many other blind hogs will,” Rep. Bart Gordon (R-Tenn.) said on the House floor in April 1994. “The same principle applies to giving Federal Pell grants to prisoners. Certainly there is an occasional success story, but when virtually every prisoner in America is eligible for Pell grants, national priorities and taxpayers lose.”
Today it is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) who has “expressed an interest in restoring Pell Grant eligibility to the incarcerated,” according to the College and Community website that is asking supporters to send letters of support for Pell grants to prisoners to the senator.
While Whitehouse–whose office did not respond to requests for comment—doesn’t sit on any Congressional education committees, symbolically, he is an important Congressional figure to have backing the cause of restoring Pell grants to prisoners: Whitehouse is a protégé of the late Pell.
And although Pell is no longer here to plead his case, the Education From the Inside Out Coalition has enlisted the support of the late Senator’s daughter, Dallas Pell, who is not shy about using her father’s name in her efforts to get Pell Grant eligibility restored to prisoners.
“Because my name is Pell, and because Pell Grants have helped so many millions of people, people will answer my telephone calls,” Dallas says. “The next step is to try to get them to receive us in a meeting.”
Though coalition leaders are reluctant to say which lawmakers they aim to speak with, observers say that one likely target is Hutchison, who led the charge in 1994 to stop Pell Grants from going to prisoners.
Hutchison was one of the main figures pushing propaganda that prisoners were causing other people to miss out on Pell grants. “This past year,” Sen. Hutchison said in April 1994, “the $200 million in Pell grants claimed by convicts deprived about 100,000 law abiding kids of federal assistance.” Hutchison’s office did not respond to a Campus Progress request for an interview.
But Jon Marc Taylor, an award-winning prison author who has written extensively about the federal ban on Pell grants to prisoners has disputed Hutchison’s claims. “A significant point omitted by the promoters of the exclusionary legislation is that every student applicant to the Pell Grant program that qualifies receives a grant,” Taylor wrote in the 1997 Journal of Prisoners on Prisons article, “Pell Grants for Prisoners Part Deux: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again.”
“The yearly Congressional appropriation, which has never been enough to fulfill the program's established spending parameters, is divided on a sliding, need-based scale amongst those who receive grants,” Taylor continued. “Therefore, not a single Pell Grant qualified student has ever been denied a Pell Grant because a prisoner received one.”
Taylor’s article said that roughly three-fifths of 1 percent of the $6 billion in Pell Grants distributed in 1993 went to prisoners: “All told, far less than the 50,000 recipients and $200 million in aid, cited by proponents of the exclusionary legislation.”
But given the fact that Pell Grants do come from a finite pot of money and economic times are tough, advocates worry that elected officials might be reluctant to push restoring Pell grants to prisoners.
Tracy Velázquez, Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute, a D.C.-based organization that fights against reliance on incarceration, says: “My concern is just really whether the bad economy might be one more reason that people say prisoners don’t deserve Pell grants.”
Sean Pica, executive director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, a New York-based non-profit group that works on prisoner reentry issues, said restoring Pell grants to prisoners should be a priority as practical matter.
"It's not about helping somebody with a second chance," Pica says. "It's about saving lives."
Citing statistics that show recidivism is roughly 60 percent in many cases, Pica likens ex-offenders returning to prison to other serious issues.
“If there were a 60 percent fatality rate on a main thoroughfare, we would find out what the hell is going on,” Pica says. “The fact that 60 percent of our men and women are returning [to prison] doesn't seem to concern anyone.”