Brian Sonenstein is a reporter covering incarceration and the prison abolition movement. He is a columnist for the Portland Phoenix, co-founder of Shadowproof.com, and co-host of the Beyond Prisons podcast. Shadowproof.com/beyond-prisons

Expanding education opportunities for incarcerated people may be the next frontier in criminal justice reform. Advocates believe such efforts will improve employment rates, lift people out of poverty, and interrupt cycles of incarceration.

Reformers are particularly interested in overturning the ban on Pell Grants for prisoners. Pell Grants are federal education awards that help low-income people afford a post-secondary education. From the 1970s to the 1990s (until President Clinton banned them as part of the 1994 Crime Bill), they were the primary source of funding for such education in prisons.

Clinton

President Bill Clinton delivers a speech on educational opportunities [U.S. National Archives]

The Vera Institute of Justice recently researched the benefits of fully reinstating Pell Grants for prisoners. In Maine, they found 1,107 prisoners were potentially eligible for grants in 2016, representing 46.1 percent of the total state prison population.

Pell Grants could increase Maine’s employment rate for formerly incarcerated people by 4.9 percent and save the state roughly $400,000 a year on incarceration, as education reduces an individual’s likelihood of returning to prison.

Without Pell Grants, higher education is out of reach for most prisoners. Nationally, only 9 percent completed a post-secondary program in 2014.

Vera estimates roughly 463,000 US prisoners would be eligible for Pell Grants today. If half took advantage of them, employment rates for former prisoners would rise by roughly 2 percent in the first year after release. Their wages would rise, too.

Education is invaluable for everyone, especially prisoners. It can be personally empowering and help people recognize their abilities and agency. It also expands their opportunities; most people entering the system are poor and lack access to education, limiting them to so-called “low skilled” or “unskilled” labor. This encourages participation in black markets, for which people are frequently criminalized.

But as advocates push to improve employment opportunities via education, additional context is crucial to deal with the problem in its entirety.

Whether or not Pell Grants are available, prison rules can present obstacles. Some departments prevent people from participating in courses based on their disciplinary records. Some limit participation to prisoners with at least one year or no more than 10 years until their release date.

There’s also prohibitions on occupational licensing and certificates for people with convictions. These credentials are required for an estimated 25 percent of jobs in the US, and workers who have them tend to make 10 to 15 percent more money than those who do not.

Homelessness after incarceration is another major barrier. People need a job to pay for housing. They also need an address to apply for a job. They need a place to sleep, and shower, and eat, and hold their belongings. But formerly incarcerated people face housing discrimination from landlords who won’t rent to people with records.

This stigma and discrimination is at the core of the employment issue. Vera features the story of a Mainer named Aaron Kinzel, who was incarcerated after a shoot-out and car chase with police. Kinzel said earning his degree was incredibly valuable, but conceded he “still struggled to find employment” because of the “serious nature” of his convictions.

One study by Devah Pager found white men with records received callbacks for jobs at half the rate of applicants without them. Black men were called back at a rate nearly three times lower.

There have been some efforts to combat this by preventing employers from asking about criminal history early on in an application, known as “Ban The Box.” However, research underscores how persistent this prejudice can be. Employers who couldn’t use “the box” resorted to wider discrimination against minority groups, particularly young black men, because they believed this group is more likely to include “criminals.”

In Maine, there seems to be some promise. News outlets reported in August that around 120 employers attended a seminar by the Department of Corrections and expressed interest in hiring formerly incarcerated people.

But we need to do more. In a report titled “Out Of Work,” Prison Policy Initiative recommends a temporary basic income for people who are released from prison to provide short term stability.

They recommend automatic record expungement so background checks don’t prejudice employment decisions (fortunately, the Maine legislature is considering bills to expunge or limit disclosure of certain records this session).

They also suggest the government can provide incentives for employers to hire formerly incarcerated people, like bond insurance and tax benefits.

More fundamentally, and critically, they suggest a ban on blanketed employer discrimination and occupational licensing reform.

Education is essential, but if our goal is to improve employment prospects and stability for people leaving prison, we have to confront this stigma as part of our efforts.

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