Pell Grant Program Provides Inmates A Second Chance At An Education

Miami Dade College has been selected to participate in the Second Chance Pell Program, a federal project aimed at helping incarcerated people attain degrees. 

Last month, the Department of Education added 67 institutions to the program that was started in 2015. It now has 130 participating schools.

Approximately 30 incarcerated people will be added to the program through MDC each year. It’s scheduled to start in January of 2021.  

“We are providing a meaningful opportunity for more students to set themselves up for future success in the workforce,” said Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in a statement, after announcing the second wave of the program. 

To be eligible through MDC, inmates must be at the Everglades Correctional Institution or the Everglades Re-Entry Center. The federal government prefers that students in the program be on track to be released from prison within five years of enrolling in the program, but MDC said it will allow students with longer periods left to serve to participate.

Students at the Everglades Correctional Institution can receive an associate’s degree in entrepreneurship, while students at the Everglades Re-Entry Center can earn a pre-bachelor of arts degree. Classes will be taught at those facilities. 

At MDC, the Second Chance Pell Program will succeed the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program, which was founded by criminal justice professor Samantha Carlo and psychology professor Minca Davis-Brantley in 2018. 

That program featured 15 MDC students and 15 incarcerated students taking classes together at the Everglades Correctional Institution. The curriculum was offered in the fall and spring but was limited to two courses: constitutional law and introduction to psychology. 

“You could see the smile on their faces every time we walked in for another day of learning,” said Kimberly Regueira, a 24-year-old criminal justice major at North Campus, who participated in the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program. “You could hear the enthusiasm in their voice any time we would have discussion in class…standing up there as students, not as criminals.”

The Second Chance Pell Program expands on the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program and features 20 three-credit classes. It will only include incarcerated students and will offer two to three classes each semester. The drastic increase will require approximately 20 MDC professors to teach at the prison. 

It was created in 2015 by the DOE as an exception to the 1994 federal ban that prevents incarcerated people from receiving Pell grants. Two-thirds of the schools that have been selected to participate in the program are two-year colleges.  

Postsecondary education in prison better prepares inmates for life after prison and lowers recidivism rates, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, an organization that provides technical assistance to incarcerated people through participating colleges and correctional departments.  

“I think [they] realize the value of education now,” Carlo said. “They realize they maybe messed up with their first opportunity to go to school and do something positive.”

The VIOJ said that nearly 17,000 students enrolled in the Second Chance Pell Program between 2016 and 2019. More than 4,500 postsecondary certificates, associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees have been given out since the program’s inception.

“I’m excited that we’re able to find a way to give someone a second chance and so that when they go home and they come back to our communities [as] better, contributing citizens,” Davis-Brantley said.