Incarcerated students can now access Pell Grants. What will it mean?

By Robin Estrin

The student store is seen on UCLA’s campus. Photo by Amy Ta.

As part of the 1984 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, better known as the “Crime Bill,” people in prison lost their eligibility to use federal Pell Grants to pay for college. But this month, lawmakers reinstated Pell Grant eligibility to those who are incarcerated.

“July 1 was a really remarkable day this year because it meant that people around the country, regardless of sentence length or conviction type, could once again apply for federal Pell Grants,” says Margaret diZerega, managing director of initiatives at Vera Institute of Justice. “It’s going to contribute to the real expansion of college opportunities in prisons around the country.”

Research shows higher education can be transformative to people in the criminal justice system as a means to break the cycle of recidivism. “The Rand Institute has found that people who participate in post-secondary education programs in prison are 48% less likely to return to prison than people who do not,” says diZerega.

UCLA student Edin Madrid wasn’t eligible for a Pell Grant when he took his first college classes in California prisons, but he pursued educational opportunities anyway.

“I got an associate's degree in prison and it was so hard to get it,” Madrid says. “I spent about 18 months trying to figure out how I was gonna get in the program. I knocked on every door and … it took forever.”

Over the course of his education, Madrid says his worldview – and his view of himself – began to change. “I started making sense of the world. When I started taking my political science classes, my sociology classes, society made sense to me, and I instantly realized that I didn't belong in prison.”

After Madrid was released from behind bars, he applied to several top tier colleges, and got in. Now, as a sociology major at UCLA, he is reflecting on the ways education transforms lives. 

“I represent everybody that's incarcerated, to show that we have the potential to get educated and to be at all these top universities … to help change the narrative that's been put upon us.”