Pell grants to bring college back to prison: US is ‘a nation of second chances’

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From The Guardian/Raw Story:

A couple of months after Sam Hamilton was released from Fishkill correctional facility, a medium security prison in upstate New York where he spent 32 years on charges of felony and murder, he returned to the prison – this time as a civilian.

Hamilton was there to celebrate. His friends, 24 inmates at Fishkill were graduating with degrees in organizational management from Nyack College, which they completed while serving time. These men were among the few inmates in the country who have had access to higher education over the last few years, after Bill Clinton cut funding to 350 college programs in prisons around the country in 1994, as a part of his Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Hamilton was part-way through his degree at the time. “It was devastating,” he said.

But as part of Obama’s planned overhaul of the criminal justice system, on Friday the education secretary Arne Duncan reversed Clinton’s cuts, and announced a temporary Second Chance Pell program to reintroduce the federal grant to prisoners looking to enroll in college. The experiment will last three to five years and will be open to prisoners who are eligible for release.

“America is a nation of second chances,” said Duncan at a prison in Maryland on Friday. “Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are. It can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers.”

The US, while having less than 5% of the world’s population, houses nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population. Increased media attention on mass incarceration has exposed the flawed prison industrial complex in America, and pressured the Obama administration to address the rehabilitative aspect of the criminal justice system.

“Funding for college classes in prison should never have been taken away in the first place,” Hamilton said in response to Duncan’s statement. “It’s just common sense when you look at what works statistically speaking.”

Indeed, research shows that higher education in prison dramatically reduces recidivism rates. While nearly three-quarters of released prisoners are back behind bars within five years of release, a seminal study by Rand, a global policy think tank, found inmates who participated in education programs are half as less likely (43%) to end up back behind bars than inmates who did not.

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