Getting higher education to people in prison is a struggle for many reasons – chief among them, cost. But Congress has made it easier for people behind bars to receive financial help for their schooling.
Tucked into an omnibus spending package from December was a bill to restore eligibility for the Second Chance Pell Grant to incarcerated folks, who were excluded 26 years ago during the “tough on crime” era. It starts no later than July 2023, but has operated as a pilot program since 2016 at certain schools, including Chemeketa Community College in Salem, where Jordan Bermingham is executive director of corrections education.
“We’re making an investment in people that are going to come and be part of the community, and that investment is going to help everybody, including those individuals,” he said. “So, I’m a really staunch supporter of the Second Chance Pell.”
Chemeketa currently is the only college in the state in the Second Chance Pell Grant program. It partners with Oregon State and Santiam Correctional Institutions, and the Oregon State Penitentiary. Bermingham said the completion rate is around 60% for its associate’s degree program, which is four times higher than the school’s main campus.
According to a RAND Corp. study, every dollar spent on prison education could save taxpayers $4 to $5, but Bermingham cited many hurdles to helping people in prison qualify for Pell Grants. Applications have to be filled out on paper, because Oregon limits prison internet access. He said it also can be hard if students have defaulted on past loans.
“It can be as little as $5, but they have to make a good-faith payment for nine consecutive months,” he said, “and getting a check mailed out of prison in regular intervals is just a challenge for our students.”
Bermingham said the struggle ultimately pays off. He said a degree helps a person become more employable, more confident – and can even foster better relationships with family members.
“We do annual graduations and invite all the families to come – and we livestream it nationwide, actually,” he said. “And the student speeches at those events, that’s really what keeps me and my staff going, and they’re pretty amazing.”
More than 460,000 people in prison will be eligible for Second Chance Pell Grants, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.