Originally posted at Public Policy Institute of California.
By Mia Bird, Amy Lerman.

This month, the Obama administration unveiled a pilot program to allow access to Pell Grants to those incarcerated in state or federal prison. In addition to expanding access to higher education, this program presents a new opportunity to leverage federal dollars to improve public safety and generate savings in the form of reduced correctional costs.

The federal program complements a bill passed last fall by the California Legislature aimed at increasing educational programming to prison inmates. Authored by State Senator Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), SB 1391 allocates $2 million to create and fund higher education programs for inmates in four pilot sites, under the leadership of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

These federal and state policy initiatives come in response to mounting evidence that education—particularly at the post-secondary level—reduces recidivism and related correctional costs. Inmates who participated in education programs had 43% lower odds of reoffending after being released into the community, according to a 2013 RAND report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. This reduction in recidivism translates to $5 in direct correctional cost savings for every $1 spent on educational programming. Efforts to take advantage of these potential returns are in line with other recent initiatives, such as California’s public safety realignment, that emphasize the use of evidence-based practices to address the state’s historically high rates of recidivism.

However, past efforts to provide educational services to inmates in California—and elsewhere—have not always been successful. Numerous studies have documented the growth of private companies that have profited from providing a range of correctional services—including secondary education, GED classes, and vocational training—with little oversight or evaluation to ensure that public money is well spent. As the federal government makes additional funds available for higher education in prison, some of these service providers will likely seek to expand into post-secondary programming. At the same time, new players, both public and private, attracted by a promising new revenue stream may well enter the field. This means it is critical to ensure that the institutions receiving Pell Grants for inmate education have sufficient and appropriate training, staff, and capacity to offer high-quality college classes and student support services. A 2015 report from UC Berkeley’s Warren Institute and Stanford’s Criminal Justice Center outlines key recommendations for improving and ensuring the quality of inmate education programs, including an emphasis on face-to-face instruction inside prison and transitional programs on the outside for students.

Given their experience in providing a range of educational services, the California Community College (CCC) and California State University (CSU) systems stand out as promising candidates to lead efforts to increase post-secondary education among inmates. The map below shows the close proximity of these educational institutions to prisons across the state.

California currently supports community college education for all low-income students, including inmates, through fee waivers. However, these waivers are not available for students who wish to pursue four-year degrees. These students rely on other forms of aid, including federal Pell Grants. The Pell Grant pilot program presents an opportunity for CSU to begin working with CDCR to leverage federal dollars to expand access to high-quality, onsite higher education for inmates in state prison.

The security and operational constraints of correctional facilities pose unique challenges to service providers. It is likely that even organizations with experience providing quality education programs, such as well-performing state universities and community colleges, may find that they have a steep learning curve when it comes to operating within a prison. Careful planning, detailed oversight, and rigorous evaluation therefore will be critical to ensuring that SB 1391 and the Pell Grant pilot achieve their goals.