Inmates receive second chance through Pell grants for college

Pell grants for prisoners

It wasn’t that long ago when John Mann thought his tax dollars were being wasted on college for inmates.

“I actually was one of those people who thought prisoners getting a free college education was a serious abuse [of] tax payer’s dollars,” Mann said.  “I thought that my money could be better spent with better programs.”

That was before Mann was arrested and began his seven year sentence. Currently he’s serving his time at the Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield where he is beginning his seventh semester at Ashland University. On his estimated release date of May 16, 2019, he plans to graduate from Ashland with an associate’s degree in business management and a goal to obtain a supervisor status in an industrial maintenance position. But his accomplishment would not have been possible without the Pell grant.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Congress amended the Higher Education Act to eliminate Pell grant eligibility to people in state or federal penitentiary institutions. Currently the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world with more than 2.2 million people in prison or jail. As part of the Obama Administration’s desire to fight the impact of mass incarceration, the Department of Education initiated the Second Chance Pell Pilot program in July 2015, which gave incarcerated citizens once again the opportunity to apply for a Pell grant to assist in earning a postsecondary degree.

David Webb, the director of the correctional program at Ashland, said inmates who leave a facility with a degree can have a better chance of finding work and, ultimately, have a smoother re-entry into society.

“Many people in hiring positions, if they find out someone has a felony conviction they’re almost eliminated just because the stigma of having their conviction,” Webb said. “Carrying college credit or a degree out the door gives them a leg up on any other incarcerated candidate and it’s going to even the playing field with someone they’re competing for jobs with.”

Ashland is only able to offer an associate’s of art in general studies and a concentration in business meaning the students have to clock in a total of 60 hours to earn their degree, just like their peers on campus. While the fence around the facilities create a challenge for inmates to escape, it also creates a barrier for the instructors to enter the building. To break the physical barriers, the classes went virtual.

Each student must purchase an android tablet, which is covered by the Pell grant, Webb said. The tablet is made by JPay, a company that gives inmates control was originally made to give inmates control of their funds. Now, these tablets allow inmates to finish their work and connect to the internet at an atm-looking kiosk in the facility, which is the only place inmates can be online.

For a school to be able to offer inmates the opportunity to use a Pell grant to pay for their education, the school had to apply to the Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (ESI.) Currently there are 69 schools across the country in the Pell ESI, but Ashland is the only school in Ohio offering the program, Webb said.

The University is currently in eight facilities in Ohio, four in Louisiana and five in West Virginia totalling 1,040 students with plans to expand even more in the coming year.  Webb said the real reason why their program is used as an example for correctional programs across the nation is because of its dedication spanning over multiple decades.

“It started as just a Christian outreach on our campus where a handful of our faculty said we’ll go over to [mansfield] and teach a handful of our classes free,” Webb said. “Then a handful of [instructors] went to the state government here in Ohio and said could we get a few Ohio instructional grants for our students at Mansfield.”

That was in 1966. Since then Ashland University was able to capitalize on the Pell grant by offering a bachelor’s of art in psychology and business and a bachelor’s of science in criminal justice and an associate’s of art in general studies. Webb said it lasted until a Tennessee Senator introduced a bill in 1994 which led Congress to eliminate the ability for inmates to receive Pell grants.

As a result, Ashland University had to stop offering their degree programs for inmates but they continued their outreach program by offering certificate programs designed to make the inmates employable after their release, Webb said.

Because of the program’s digression, Ashland is not currently offering bachelor programs but their associates program is still inspiring many inmates. Brian Fielders, an inmate at Richfield Correctional Institution, is serving a six year sentence. His approximate release date is coming up in February of next year but he won’t be leaving with a degree. Instead Ashland University offers their inmate students to continue their education for a year after their release, which Fielders said he plans to do as he works his way to owning his own tattoo business.

“Being a felon, it’s harder for us to find work out there even with a degree,” Fielders said. “Having this degree would make it easier for me to get a business loan to get myself going, which it will because I’ve already worked on my business plan.”

The program has a number of perks for inmates with the ultimate perk being the ability to be change when they leave prison.

“Before I came to prison I was so busy raising children and going to work that education, higher education specifically, was not even a consideration,” Mann said. “If not for this program I would just go back to doing what I was doing and trying to do that with a felony record would be much more difficult.”

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