Centering Incarcerated Individuals while Advocating for the REAL Act 2019

Houston Institute
Sep 18, 2019 · 5 min read

by Jacqueline Lantsman

The inaccessibility of higher education has received national attention. College students across the country are protesting tuition hikes and demanding transparency in University spending. Elizabeth Warren, 2020 Presidential candidate, is offering policy solutions to mitigate the long-term effects of student debt on economic stability and upward mobility. This national dialogue has now extended to a community of individuals disenfranchised from accessing the college classroom: those currently incarcerated in U.S. correctional institutions.

In Washington, D.C., the REAL Act 2019 was introduced in both the Senate (SR. 2423) and House (H.R. 2168) with the intention to “reinstate Federal Pell Grant eligibility for individuals incarcerated in Federal and State penal institutions, and for other purposes.”

The REAL Act 2019 would assist the 41,000 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applicants ineligible for aid because of drug-related offenses, and individuals currently confined in prison. The restrictions on Pell eligibility for those convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor were passed by the Clinton administration in 1994, during the “tough on crime” era.

Why is Pell Grant access important to individuals currently and formerly incarcerated?

Currently, 64% of individuals in state and federal prisons have graduated from high school or hold a GED, meaning that roughly 960,000 people are eligible to enroll in college classes. Individuals with the academic foundation to engage in critical and higher-order thinking are unable to participate due to the expense of college courses in prison. This limitation is reflected in the mere 9% of individuals who complete college classes while incarcerated.

However, a pilot program initiated during the Obama administration, the Second Chance Pell (SCP) Experimental State Initiative, found great interest among the incarcerated population in taking college courses. Partnering with a total of 65 college programs with the assistance of federal grant funding, a total of 10,654 individuals incarcerated enrolled across three semesters into 1112 course offerings, with interest between semesters increasing by 23 percent. Between 2015 and 2017 the outcomes of the program were substantial, resulting in 701 certificates, 230 associate degrees, and 23 bachelor’s degrees earned by program participants.

Across party lines, there is recognition that great opportunity exists in providing education, specifically for the promotion of rehabilitation, as well as the increase of employment and economic viability for individuals and families with members involved with the justice system. Following the passage of the First Step Act, policy discussions are focused on releasing people from prison sentenced largely for low-level drug offenses. Kevin Ring, President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), has addressed the relationship between the two criminal justice bills. Ring states that in the coming years 94 percent of individuals re-integrating will require the tools to compete in the job market, and by 2020 65 percent of jobs will require post-secondary education and training beyond high school.

While the economic values shared by policymakers are critical to recruiting lawmakers for the passage of the REAL Act 2019, the conditions described by individuals currently incarcerated highlight the need for a conversation about the purposes of education.

Education as preparation for re-entry and employment

The mainstream argument in support of the REAL Act 2019 centers on the financial benefits of college education in prison. Pertaining to recidivism, lifting the ban on Pell Grants would create an estimated 400 percent return on investment within three years. For every one dollar spent on responding to recidivism, the government would save five dollars for investing in post-secondary education in prison.

Furthermore, individuals who receive a college education while incarcerated are 13 percent more likely to find employment post-release and earn higher wages than their peers who were unable to obtain an education in prison. Scholars of social science James Conway and Edward Jones postulate that by completing college, people who have been incarcerated disrupt the relationship between poverty and incarceration, moving closer to economic stability.

Beyond the long-term financial benefits of access to Pell Grants, providing a college education aligns the criminal legal system with its supposed outcome of rehabilitation. In a research study, the RAND Corporation determined that participation in education programs during prison reduces crimes committed and rules broken by 43 percent while people are on parole. We see a similar trend during incarceration, with correctional staff identifying safer working conditions for them and safer living conditions for incarcerated populations.

Education as a tool for transformation and self-actualization

“You don’t exist for nothing.” That was how a currently incarcerated individual expressed the importance of higher education during confinement. I heard this voiced while participating in the Equity in Higher Education Policy Lunch & Learn Series as an Advocacy, Equity, and Policy Fellow, discussing the transformational impact that access to education had on their sentence and re-integration.

Most of the opportunities for education in prison take the form of independent study. Many narratives, highlighted by the Marshall Project and Nation Swell, describe the reliance on difficult-to-access books and articles to engage in critical thinking and self-improvement. The solitude of reading, many formerly incarcerated people explain, protected them from becoming involved with many of the dangers in prison. While independent study is restorative, the process of learning from an external professor and beside those grappling with similar complicated questions fosters a culture of learning and intellectual exploration in the correctional setting. “The 15 to 30 students partaking in the class then expose other curious individuals,” as described by a formerly incarcerated individual.

Higher education in prison offers resources for honing the skill of exploring questions of why, and enabling exploration of the structures of power distribution, inequity, and injustice. An individual who previously served his sentence explains that by offering post-secondary education in prison, society recognizes the infinite intellectual assets found among the incarcerated population.

By offering Pell Grant eligibility to those currently incarcerated, the United States is not only recognizing the necessity of critical thinking to economic stability and contributions to society, but also challenging the narrative that individuals with criminal records “exist for nothing.” When championing the passage of the REAL Act 2019 we must include the perspective of directly affected stakeholders, as discussed here. By doing so lawmakers will become aware of the deep interest in and necessity of higher education for individuals currently residing in prison.

Follow developments in the passage of the REAL Act 2019 here.

Organizations leading the way:

Unlock Higher Education Coalition

Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration

The Education Trust

Jacqueline Lantsman is currently receiving her Masters of Public Health, with a focus on health policy, at the George Washington University Milken School of Public Health. She takes a cross-sectoral approach to advancing quality of life. Her former experiences include policy research and programmatic work at the Brookings Institution, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Originally published at

Houston Institute

The Houston Institute serves as a critical bridge between scholarship, law, policy and practice and is well-positioned to bring together critical players from many spheres to devise and implement research-based solutions and remedies.

Houston Institute

Written by


Houston Institute

The Houston Institute serves as a critical bridge between scholarship, law, policy and practice and is well-positioned to bring together critical players from many spheres to devise and implement research-based solutions and remedies.

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