Valerie L. Cortez lives in Madison and owns a real estate brokerage, JPAR Rocket City, in Huntsville. She serves as a Justice Ambassador for Prison Fellowship
My son had plans for a bright future. He wanted to study history or philosophy, then go on to law school. His life took a tragic detour in 2016. He made the devastating choice to get behind the wheel when he shouldn’t have—and it cost three young people their lives, and their families grief beyond measure. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Already behind bars, my boy was being eaten away by his grief, shame, and guilt because of the loss of those lives. He needed hope. He needed purpose. Fortunately, he found it before it was too late, and it came in the form of higher education.
My son was able to enroll in classes at the University of Alabama through the Second Chance Pell Grant Experimental Site Initiative. Because his prison is a site for this Department of Education pilot program, my son is one of a select few incarcerated students who access Pell Grant dollars to pursue higher education. He went from feeling like he had been thrown in a dark hole to living with a vibrant new hope.
“My experience with the Pell Grant program has been amazing ... lifesaving,” he says. “[I’ve been] able to further my education, build skills to help me succeed in the future. And [it’s] giving me something to strive for, gives my life a sense of purpose.”
Access to education behind bars is transforming my son’s life. By fully restoring access to Pell Grants for incarcerated students in its response to COVID-19, Congress can expand this opportunity for others to pursue a second chance.
While my son was thankfully able to access higher education through a pilot opportunity, this option is not available to most men and women in prison. An amendment to the 1994 crime bill made incarcerated students ineligible for Pell Grants. That led to a dramatic decline of postsecondary education opportunities in our prisons.
We should undo this exclusion of incarcerated students. Restoring prisoners’ access to Pell Grants will reduce crime and increase the likelihood of successful reentry to society. Research shows that higher education in prison is a proven tool for changing lives.
One study found that participants in correctional education were 48% less likely to return to crime. Another showed that education in prison can improve employment among returning citizens. These are hopeful results that shouldn’t be overlooked—especially now.
The first part of the coming decade might be one of the most challenging times ever for men and women pursuing a new beginning after incarceration. The strong economy before COVID-19 that encouraged the hiring of and entrepreneurship by men and women with a criminal record is unlikely to return soon. Meanwhile, half of reentry program providers in a recent survey fear closure because of this pandemic.
These barriers make it more important than ever for incarcerated men and women to make their time behind bars constructive. And true redemption comes when prisoners rejoin society as constructive citizens. By advancing Pell restoration in this Congress, Sens. Doug Jones and Richard Shelby can equip people leaving prison to navigate a world forever changed by this virus and contribute to our recovery. And doing so wouldn’t take money away from other students. Prior to 1994, less than 1% of Pell dollars went to incarcerated students. Expanding prisoners’ access to Pell Grants would not come at the expense of others.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers, our nation’s business leaders, prosecutors, and departments of corrections all agree that more people, like my son, should have access to educational opportunities. But windows for criminal justice progress in our nation often open briefly but close tightly. Seeing the impact on my son, I’m convinced: Alabama’s representatives in Washington must seize this opportunity to restore the hope of education in the lives of the nation’s prisoners.
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