An Introduction to Pell Grant Funding for Incarcerated People

An Introduction to Pell Grant Funding for Incarcerated People

Assessment is one of the governing principals of Higher Education, and the field of Higher Education in Prison (HEP) should not be any different. However, though HEP research is more plentiful these days, application of the research recommendations remains quite limited. It is one thing to present research findings with an eye toward implementation. But it is quite another to make the necessary adjustments for a program to thrive logistically. This should be the primary concern for the Department of Corrections (DOC) and HEP education providers as Pell Grant funding for incarcerated people is scheduled to return in July 2023.

This series will cover issues facing incarcerated college students and academic administrators regarding Pell Grant funding. The first article will define the major problems concerning the most urgent applications. We will move beyond the broadly articulated research recommendations to find potential realizations. While remaining critical of the systems that further injustice, dehumanization and inequities in prison remains important, without a plan for rapid program development, incarcerated students won’t have access to the many educational opportunities across the US. 

Research can only take the field so far without dedicated practitioners focused on information dissemination, equitable screening processes, program accountability and academic integrity. Delivering Pell Grant funding for incarcerated people will need a more concerted and strategic effort on the part of individual educators, program administrators and concerned advocacy representatives. 

Concern One: Information Dissemination

HEP program directors and DOC educational leaders struggle to place mechanisms for Pell Grant implementation. Yet the average incarcerated person has no idea what Pell Grant funding is, whether they qualify for it or what they can use it for. The current recommendations include the development of robust resources for program staff, DOCs and incarcerated people. However, who will be responsible for developing these tools remains nebulous. 

Prison education partnerships are popping up in every state. But most are focusing on large-scale preparation instead of on-the-ground readiness. For example, in North Carolina, HEP programs and the NC Department of Adult Corrections have partnered together to create the NC Higher Education in Prison Consortium toward developing policies and procedures for program and Pell approval. While these remain necessary, little happens to prepare incarcerated people. 

Widespread misconceptions of admittance to college programs, financial aid support and Pell purposes among incarcerated people in NC will prevent HEP administrators from fairly distributing equitable educational opportunities. There are numerous resources available that could assist incarcerated people in learning more about Pell Grant funding and preparation for possible program participation. 

Targeted application should include the following:

  • large-scale information dissemination of already available publications to every incarcerated person in the state,
  • prison-to-prison information sessions by educational experts to explain the intricacies of Pell,
  • required and concerted efforts for HEP programs to educate incarcerated people about Pell funding through workshops or informational sessions that should include line-by-line explanations and financial advisement and
  • resource development for interested persons, which include application guidelines, sample applications, FAQs and available programs.
Image courtesy of  Emiliano Bar via Wikimedia Commons.

Concern Two: Equitable Screening and Admissions

Researchers point to inequitable screening for college admission by prison officials as a major concern for Pell funding. Specifically, 77% of the researched Second Chance Pell sites included Pell pre-screening for admission to college programs. Not only is this targeted admissions bias, but it also perpetuates longstanding college inequalities surrounding race, sex and gender. 

The return of Pell Grant funding means DOCs will now have even more power to approve, deny and facilitate in-prison educational programs. And while this may be helpful in some cases, by and large prison systems are most concerned about the bottom line. Education has become the catch-all phrase for how successful (or unsuccessful) a state is toward their mission of “rehabilitation” or “reduction of recidivism.” This places DOC success as the center point rather than creating educational opportunities that reflect the belief in education as a basic human right. In general, DOCs remain committed to antiquated norms of prison management which only dehumanize incarcerated people even more. 

Targeted application in this area should include the following:

  • a clearly stated memorandum of understanding between HEP programs and DOC’s that explicitly state the admissions responsibilities of each entity and equal authority in the admissions process,
  • universal state-screening standard operating procedures for every HEP, with the restriction that screening is not 100% dependent on individual facility prison program specialists, regional directors or other influencers that may bias admission to programs,
  • mandatory staff positions in all approved programs in admissions and registrar, and if a HEP program cannot show a currently filled staff position, approval should not be granted and
  • required admissions committee for every HEP program which includes college and DOC representatives.

Concern Three: Program Accountability

Probably the most concerning research recommendation addresses how to hold HEP programs and DOCs accountable. Currently, incarcerated students lack the autonomy at any stage of the process to address their needs with the same levels as outside college students. This lack perpetuates inequities and reduces buy-in from people who will not ever trust DOC and HEP program administrators. 

Furthermore, with no universal approval process and program assessment, DOCs may implement prejudiced resourcing dependent on subjectivity or favoritism. For example, North Carolina is one of the first states to create an internal internet network (INet) for prisons for broader information dissemination, tablet use and educational possibilities. However, only one HEP program in the state has been able to benefit fully from INet. NC DPS did not privilege educational programs for instillation which led to delay in several programs’ ability to provide required educational content or even program implementation.

In this area, targeted application should include the following:

  • universal assessment tools to collect annual data similar to college accreditation standards and a mandatory annual assessment through a committee which includes college and DOC representatives,
  • annual program reporting to the assessment committee,
  • required state consortium or collaboratives that will be accessible to any HEP practitioner to monitor state-wide concerns related to equity and inclusion, program standards and DOC accountability and
  • mandatory interest sessions, continuing education workshops and student success platforms for every approved HEP program so that student rights are centered.
Image courtesy of  MD Duran via Unsplash.

Concern Four: Academic Integrity

HEP programs are not just restricted by resources, lack of accountability or politically driven partnerships between DOCs and HEP administrators; academic integrity remains vital to the success of education in prison. Oftentimes, HEP programs are approved at the state level because every education program added reflects positively on the DOC.

However, local facility relations can hinder program implementation. Prison management and security become the excuse for facility support. And local prison officials often operate outside their scope of expertise by requiring HEP program administrators to follow restrictive policies that violate the purposes of higher education. Fear of losing prison credentials drives academic concessions, which reinforces systemic mistrust. 

For example, facilities are often limited on spacing, staffing, resources and other required components of an education program. Local prison program officials sometimes serve as part of the HEP team in making logistical decisions but without any qualifying factors that preserve the academic integrity of an institution for higher learning. When facility wardens, prison program staff, case workers or correctional officers get involved in program implementation, their mission and security often conflict with required academic accreditation standards.

Targeted application here should include the following:

  • a clearly stated memorandum of understanding between HEP programs and local prison facilities that explicitly state the responsibilities of each entity and logistical requirements for program implementation (space, resources, student guidelines, “disciplinary” guidelines, program continuity and transfer policies),
  • required academic audit performed on an annual or bi-annual rotation,
  • mandatory academic advisory committee for each approved HEP program so that students have specific access to student success mechanisms that fall outside the scope of prison management and
  • facility-level standard operating procedures that clearly outline roles and responsibilities that are not dependent on individual personalities or restrictive chains of command that too often prioritize security operations in academic settings.

Next Time: The Obstacles of Fear and Politics

In the next installation, we will take a more in-depth look at how fear and political maneuvering can prevent academic integrity and dictatorial policies can preclude core objectives of higher education such as critical thinking, adaptation and autonomy. 

Dr. Deanna Kabler, Ed.D., is a contributor for Interrogating Justice and a Higher Education in Prison educator, advocate, and researcher. Her experiences in HEP program administration inform her work in prison advocacy. She believes education is a basic human right and seeks to empower justice-impacted people.

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