Rodriguez is now the director of Georgia State University’s Prison Education Program. While he was incarcerated, Rodriguez took a sociology class and learned about the prison system. He said the course jump started his career.
Many people are not able to access the same classes Rodriguez took while incarcerated, however. In Georgia, there are fewer than a dozen programs that provide college classes to students in prison. And, Rodriguez said, classes are almost always filled.
Even after accessing a class, many students struggle to pay. Incarcerated students who wanted to go to college have had to rely on external scholarships, donors and grant money to enroll in school for nearly three decades since federal Pell Grant eligibility was removed for prison courses nationwide in 1994.
But, on July 1, the federal government reinstated Pell Grant eligibility for all qualifying incarcerated people. The grants provide an average of $4,947 in need-based aid in Georgia, primarily to students whose families make less than $30,000 annually, to pursue undergraduate and some postbaccalaureate degrees. Around 760,000 people in prison are estimated to have become eligible for the grant on July 1. The program cost Congress nearly $26 billion last year.
For the state with the sixth highest rate of incarceration in the country, the introduction of a subsidized college education has the potential to save millions. Estimates suggest that every $1 spent on correctional education leads to $4 to $5 saved on reincarceration costs. As prison education options expand, these grants could help change the lives of hundreds of the state’s most marginalized residents each year.
An essential lifeline
Congress voted in March 2021 to make all incarcerated students eligible for Pell Grants and gave the Department of Education until July 1, 2023 to restore eligibility. While some universities may have struggled to find funding for prison education programs in the past, experts expect these grants will allow for an increase in programs in Georgia and throughout the country.
“That’s why we’re so happy to see Pell Grants come back online, because I think more schools will enter into this work,” Thomas Fabisiak, who directs Life University’s college degree programs at Arrendale State Prison, said. “Obviously, one of the biggest barriers for schools is funding.”
In 1994, Congress passed the crime bill, which lengthened maximum sentences and funded new prisons across the nation. It banned incarcerated people from accessing Pell Grants, which many depended upon
At the time, hundreds of academic and vocational programs in prisons and jails closed, no longer able to support students’ tuition. Though other programs tried to survive, many found it difficult to continue operating. Allred worked in Berry College’s prison education program for about a decade while Pell Grants were inaccessible. When funding ran out, there were no options.
“Tuition was covered by an education grant from the Georgia Department of Corrections,” Allred said. “That grant was eliminated completely a couple of years ago, probably around 2020... So, it ended.”
Meanwhile, some schools, such as Georgia State University, have been able to access Pell Grants for a few years through the Second-Chance Pell program, a special Obama-era initiative that allowed some students eligibility. GSU was granted Pell eligibility in 2020 under the program, and the school’s classes have been expanding since, Rodriguez said.
“We have about 48 brand new applicants currently pending admissions to Georgia State University, which is a really big number,” Rodriguez said.
GSU has continued to add students and programs. Increased donations and grant money have helped, but Rodriguez said the implementation of Pell Grants aided the program’s expanding size.
Other schools also benefited. When Pell Grants first became available from 2015 to 2018, about 200 schools started to collaborate with prison systems, according to the Center for American Progress.
Now that Pell Grants are available to all incarcerated students, Rodriguez said he hopes to see existing programs expand. He hopes to see public education programs increase, in particular.
“When you put down a map of all 26 USG schools, and then you overlay a map of all the prisons, you see we can literally have a degree program in almost every prison facility here,” he said. “We’re always in the top six as it relates to the amount of people we incarcerate… How can we start to decrease that number? I think the first step to doing that is through education.”
Allred agrees. She said she sees the potential for a major expansion in Georgia’s prison education programs in the coming years.
“I doubt most of those (facilities) have relationships with technical schools, community colleges, or colleges and universities and so forth that have Pell eligible programs,” Allred said. “We will hopefully see more engagement.”
Grants provide programs with increased financial security
Life University’s prison education program has always operated at a loss, according to Fabisiak.
“We started the Life program in 2016,” Fabisiak said. “We had one private foundation grant, and then everything else was just paid for by the school.”
From the program’s inception, the school committed to introducing a program that would not be profitable, but would be supported by donors, grants and the university.
But, when Pell Grants were introduced to Life through the Second Chance program in 2020, Fabisiak said they provided the University with sustainability. Finally, he felt like the program would survive if private funds faltered.
“We have relied to a large extent on a few donors and some private foundation grants,” Fabisiak said. “But, in order to continue this work beyond this point, we’re going to, at some point, need to rely on Pell Grants.”
Right now, Fabisiak said, the program is likely moving to another facility.
While shutting down the program may have been a conversation prior to Pell Grants, Fabisiak said the school did not need to worry about financing.
“In a moment of transition that might otherwise have led administrators to say something like, ‘Well, can we really afford to keep this program right now?’ there wasn’t any question,” he said. “Everyone said, no, no, this is viable.’”
That long-term assurance is something that Fabisak expects many schools need before they are willing to establish a prison education program. At Life University, each credit costs almost $400 for regular students. Most businesses are not often willing to operate at that kind of a loss, he said, making Pell Grants all the more essential.
Fabisiak emphasized the limited capacity of education in the prison system is its biggest downside. He said his program is only able to serve about 40 to 45 students in a 1700 person facility.
More programs are needed throughout the state, and access to Pell Grants will help universities get there, Fabisiak said.
“In Georgia, if you look at the statistical reports that the Georgia Department of Corrections puts out every year, about 1% of people coming out of the prisons have a bachelor’s degree,” Fabisiak said. “And that’s compared to about 30% of the general population of adult Georgians.”
Advocates say more support is still needed
Pamela Winn is a founder and President of Restore HER, a Georgia-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. While she was incarcerated for 78 months at the Robert A. Deyton Detention Facility in Georgia on fraud charges, Winn was able to receive college credit for several computer software courses.
Winn attended her program financed by a Pell Grant. She said she would not have been able to pay for the courses out-of-pocket, but wanted to keep up with the job market.
“I came from a low income, Southern Black family,” Winn said. “The highest education my other family members had was 8th grade. Now, I’ve gone places and did things nobody else had ever done, had ever felt was possible. For me, education is what made that possible.”
Winn said she hears a lot of complaints about the logistics of attending classes while incarcerated from her clients.
When she was enrolled in a prison education program, Winn’s biggest goal was to keep up with the technological world. That required a computer, which she said are often hard to access.
“Laptops and any kind of technology stuff is gonna be difficult,” Winn said. “A facility is gonna want you to use whatever they have, and it’s gonna be old and outdated...If you have to purchase it for yourself, you need clearance to go to get that, and its an additional barrier.”
In order to continue expanding access to learning in prisons, Winn said there needs to be a focus on tools and technology. Phone and computer usage is often prohibited or heavily monitored in prisons.
For students like herself, Winn said the inability to purchase a computer could pose a major issue.
Allred agreed that additional support is needed in prisons to support successful education programs. Even in the application process, determining Pell Grant eligibility will likely require a number of forms.
That’s not so easy for many students who are currently incarcerated, she said.
“You have to submit your past papers to demonstrate financial eligibility for Pell,” Allred said. “Most incoming college students are fortunate enough to be able to walk down the hall and ask a parent ‘Can you pull up your last year’s tax record?’ That’s so much more challenging if you’re incarcerated.”
Nevertheless, increasing opportunities for donations, grants and scholarships remains incredibly important, she said.
“When we invest in prison education programs,” Allred said. “That means equipping people to be the best version of themselves ... It is it is the work that they do to benefit not just themselves but the other people in their prisons, and ultimately their broader communities.”