(ELLSWORTH, Kan.) — For the first time in decades, prison inmates are eligible for the Pell Grant, a federal financial aid program that helps low-income students receive a college education.
Simon Garcia, 34, who graduated college last November from a state prison in Ellsworth, Kansas, is just one of the people whose life was changed due to a Pell Grant.
“I’ve been in prison and incarcerated all my life, since I was 12 years old,” Garcia told ABC News. “Initially, was just gang related and it was aggravated assault.”
While in prison, 10 more years were added to his sentence for hiding a homemade knife and shoving a corrections officer off a second-floor balcony.
“I thought that I was the king of my world, and I had it all going on,” Garcia said. “But I was so broken and messed up inside.”
The Pell Grant has given Garcia a new opportunity. With seven more years to go in prison, he has now earned his associate’s degree in general studies with honors, after being a full-time student taking five classes a semester. He is graduating along with a dozen other convicted men.
“I feel like education helped me gain the power to break free from the shackles of ignorance,” Garcia said. “Nobody’s too far past redemption.”
Former President Bill Clinton had removed Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals through the Federal Crime Bill of 1994, as an answer to the crack cocaine epidemic of the early 1990s. Then-Delaware senator and current President Joe Biden co-authored the bill.
“I think the reason that people in prison lost eligibility for Pell Grants in 1994 was really just part of our larger tough-on-crime attitude at the time, as a country,” said Margaret DiZerega, the managing director of initiatives at the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, a research organization. “And so, it was seen as another way to be punitive and to take this away from people who are in prison, even though less than 1% of all people accessing Pell at that time were people who were in prison.”
But in 2016, the Obama administration reintroduced the Pell Grants to incarcerated individuals. Through the Second Chance Pell experiment, selected pilot correction facilities offered fully funded Pell Grant college programs.
According to a 2018 study from the RAND Corporation funded by the Department of Justice, incarcerated individuals who participated in prison education were 48% less likely to return to prison within three years. RAND also estimated that for every dollar invested in prison education, up to $5 is saved on re-incarceration costs.
“That means there are fewer crime victims, there are more people living freely in the community,” said DiZerega.
At the end of 2020, the FAFSA Simplification Act was passed, restoring Pell Grants for students incarcerated in federal or state prisons, regardless of their conviction type or sentence length.
Roy Maney is a Pell Grant applicant at Ellsworth Correctional Facility. Maney, 42, was convicted of second-degree murder for killing 30-year-old Tiffany Mogenson when he sped away from a police officer and crashed into Mogenson’s car in 2013.
“The balance between punishment and rehabilitation is always tough for a victim’s family,” Mogenson’s father, Randy Long, wrote to ABC News. “I truly doubt that any continued education will assist [Roy Maney] in his life after prison. To me this is an additional slap in the face for all who supported Tiffany. They now get to pay for this government boondoggle.”
The state of Kansas says that Maney could be released in three years.
“Would you want someone that don’t have a degree to be your neighbor or a person with a degree?” Maney said. “These inmates that people just say, ‘oh, forget about them.’ These same people are going to the street. They can be in the grocery store with you. So why write them off? Everybody deserves a second chance.”
“Everyone’s made a mistake in their life,” said Don Langford, the prison warden at Ellsworth. “And by giving those GEDs and Second Chance Pell Grants, it gives men and women that opportunity to learn something that they may have never learned.”
Terrin Keith has directly experienced the benefits of the prison college program. Once a hard drug user, Keith, 35, has been in and out of state penitentiaries his whole adult life.
“In the past, when I would get released, and I would go apply for jobs,” said Keith. “But just having the felony checkmark on the application, it just seemed like I’d get no response. And so, then I’d fall back into my old habits.”
But this time, he was released from prison last summer with an associate’s degree in applied science with a 4.0 grade point average. He secured a job building windows while in prison.
“Being able to get that education and then landing that job while incarcerated was a big game changer,” said Keith. “It made the transition a lot easier.”
While most companies refuse to hire convicted felons, Keith’s new employer, Bob Holloway, needs skilled and educated labor to build architectural German windows. He has agreed to interview men at the prison for his company, Advantage Architectural Woodwork.
“I was skeptical that he would show up the first day,” Holloway said. “Ten years ago, two years ago, I would have never seen myself employing convicts. And yeah, so far so good.”
For others still in prison, a college degree brings hope for possibilities. Garcia feels that his newly earned degree has provided him the tools to become a better man. Before he leaves prison, Garcia plans to earn a master’s degree that he can use on the outside.
“I’ve never felt this happy in my life and I’m in prison and I still have seven years to go,” said Garcia. “I don’t feel negative at all. I don’t feel like anything bad is going to happen, and if it does, I’m ready for it.”
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