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Opportunity and dignity for incarcerated Americans

Three and a half years ago, we hosted a meeting here at Ford to discuss the possibility of an experimental program to extend Pell Grants to incarcerated Americans, which would allow them to pursue higher education while in prison. Our grantees and partners had long advocated for the restoration of this important opportunity for students in prisons and jails. At this meeting they were joined by representatives from the Department of Justice and the Department of Education to consider what that program might look like.

Today, with the launch of the Obama administration’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, we are thrilled to see the fruits of that effort. People incarcerated in federal and state prisons will be eligible to receive federal aid to take the college courses that will prepare them to be thoughtful, responsible, engaged members of their communities—and help keep them from returning to prison.

Research and evaluation has shown that college in prison programs have a profound impact on incarcerated people and their communities. Certainly, these programs reduce recidivism—their graduates are far less likely to reoffend and return to prison. Just as importantly, though, college in prison programs prepare their students to get good jobs, support their families, and be active members of society.

This experimental program is an opportunity to demonstrate even further that there are important connections between people’s lives before they are incarcerated, their experience in prison, and what happens after they are released. The profound impact of high quality educational programs for incarcerated people also points to the need for strong programs and policies that keep people out of prison to begin with. At the same time as we need to develop and expand the educational and comprehensive reentry support programs former prisoners need to succeed, we also need alternatives to incarceration. The two simply can’t be separated.

Ford’s support for this effort exemplifies our values as a social justice institution focused on society’s most marginalized people. And in fact, our work in this area goes back to 1967, when Christopher Edley, Sr., the foundation’s first African American program officer, instituted a program to support college in prison. When Pell Grants were established in the 1970s, prisoners in those programs had access to them. But in 1994, Congress eliminated access to these grants to students in prisons, and so—together with those of our dedicated partners—we renewed our efforts.

I often think about A. Philip Randolph’s famous quote: “Freedom and justice is never a final act.” As we celebrate this tremendous victory today, I’m especially mindful of the long and complicated road we traveled to get here, and the importance of understanding and remembering that route while looking to the future.

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