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Should prisoners have access to college grants? A new report says they should

After Lee Correctional prison riot, activists demand change to prison system

The Free South Carolina Movement, consisting of relatives, friends, neighbors and activists gathered at the State House Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, to deliver a list of demands on behalf of S.C. prisoners to Gov. Henry McMaster.
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The Free South Carolina Movement, consisting of relatives, friends, neighbors and activists gathered at the State House Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, to deliver a list of demands on behalf of S.C. prisoners to Gov. Henry McMaster.

Should prisoners have access to federal resources that help low-income students afford college?

A new study says they should, and doing so would save states money, make prisons safer and help keep ex-cons on the right track when they get out of college, according to a report from the Vera Institute for Justice and Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality.

“Any plan that will provide additional opportunities to our citizens is a good idea, especially for our citizens who are incarcerated. They have so few opportunities to hone their job skills,” said Mike LeFever, the interim director of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.

If half of the 2,858 South Carolina prisoners eligible for Pell Grants were to accept the grant, it would cost the federal government roughly $5.3 million, according to the study. As for states, the reduced number of people getting sent back to prison would save a projected $1.3 million. That’s because prisoners who take part in existing postsecondary education courses while incarcerated are 48 percent less likely to re-offend, according to the study.

“If that federal resource is unlocked, it only benefits states, because that wasn’t money they had access to before,” said study co-author Margaret diZerega.

It is worth noting, diZerega said, that there would likely be a “ramp-up” period in between the program’s introduction and a significant number of prisoners using it.

“Prisons have limited classroom space, and prisoners have other constraints on their time such as work assignments,” diZerega said.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections issued 6,261 educational awards last fiscal year, spokesman Dexter Lee said in an email. Of those, 5,901 were certificates or on-the-job training awards, 324 were GEDs and 36 were for Department of Labor apprenticeships, Lee said.

Few prisoners earned full college degrees. In 2018, 10 inmates earned associate degrees and one earned a bachelor’s degree through Columbia International University, Lee said.

The progressive proposal would require a change in federal law, but it’s far from a new idea. When Congress set up the Pell Grant program in 1972, prisoners were eligible for Pell Grants. But prisoners were barred from receiving Pell Grants in the ‘90s, when lawmakers instituted tough on crime measures.

“As the country got tough on crime, there was a lot of harm that was perpetuated, especially in communities of color,” diZerega said.

Existing law allows former prisoners to receive Pell Grants if they are eligible, but only after they get out of prison. S.C. law bars felons for life from receiving state aid and lottery scholarships, according to a fact sheet from the Commission on Higher Education.

For Northeastern Technical College in Cheraw, the idea is more than just a theory. A U.S. Department of Education pilot program allows prisoners who are set to leave prison in five years or less to access Pell Grants to take Northeastern Technical College classes from the prison.

Roughly 12 inmates are enrolled in the first cohort and are expected to graduate with an associate degree in either business or marketing in August, said Mark Bunch, the school’s dean of workforce development and continuing education.

Northeast Technical College wants to expand the program to add more students and more classes, possibly allowing inmates to graduate with a minor along with a degree, Bunch said.

“This is new to us as well,” Bunch said.

Lucas Daprile has been covering the University of South Carolina and higher education since March 2018. Before working for The State, he graduated from Ohio University and worked as an investigative reporter at TCPalm in Stuart, FL. There, where he won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his political and environmental coverage.
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