Lawmakers in Congress voted on December 21, 2020 to lift a 26-year-old ban on Pell Grants for people in prison. The restoration of access to Pell Grants means that incarcerated people, including those in Washington State, can once again apply for federal Pell Grants in order to pay for college courses.
Access to education is transformative, and this bipartisan vote will improve community safety for everyone while also opening a new chapter of opportunity for incarcerated people and their families, marking a step toward increasing equity for Black and brown communities. The measure lifting the ban was included in Congress’ omnibus end-of-year package.
Evidence that access to postsecondary courses in prison improves lives and communities is overwhelming and has been further demonstrated by the success of the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative. In 2016, TCC was selected as one of three colleges in the state to administer the Second Chance Pell Grant Pilot Program at the women’s prisons the college serves, Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW) and the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). Since then, 21 Pell-assisted students have released with transferable college credits as well as certificates in business and entrepreneurship.
TCC offers many employable degrees to incarcerated women, including a groundbreaking web development program that allows women to access a secure internet to learn full-stack programming, launched at WCCW in 2019.
In response to this historic vote, TCC Director of Corrections Education Dr. Sultana Shabazz said,
“TCC has been offering college courses to incarcerated people in Washington since the college opened in 1965, and we are thrilled that Congress has voted to restore access to Pell Grants to everyone behind bars. Expanding access to postsecondary education in prison provides incarcerated people with greater opportunity when they return to their families and communities; cuts state expenditures on prisons; and most importantly, is a catalyst to transforming their lives and the lives of their families.”
Students at WCCW (unidentified due to privacy concerns) upon hearing the news spoke about how the reversal would help people “overcome generational obstacles” to success, provide “more education and that means everything” and how earning a degree inside “gives us a chance to prove something to society”.
Including TCC’s college in prison program, there are now 130 colleges in 42 states and the District of Columbia participating in the Second Chance Pell initiative, through which incarcerated students have earned more than 4,500 bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees, postsecondary diplomas, and certificates.