Federal financial aid is returning to PA prisons. But getting a college degree inside won’t be easy.

Photos via the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and messages via Robert Anthony and Matthew Slaughter, two people incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

Incarcerated people hoping to prepare for life on the outside or just better themselves face waits, and programs are limited — but Pell Grants bring hope to some would-be students.

by Emma Folts, PublicSource

For about two decades, a college education has been out of reach for Robert Anthony. 

The former Wilkinsburg resident briefly attended what’s now Pennsylvania Western University Clarion, but he was later incarcerated at 21. Anthony, now 42, is serving a life sentence at State Correctional Institution [SCI] Rockview, in Centre County. Like most of the state’s prisons, his facility doesn’t offer college degree programs. 

He could try to transfer to one that does, but he’s secured a tutoring job that he doesn’t want to lose by going elsewhere. He tried to take a course through Ohio University, but it would’ve cost him about $1,000. It’s not feasible when he earns up to 50 cents an hour for working in prison, netting about $45 to $50 a month, he said. 

Anthony, who is pursuing a commutation of his sentence, wants to earn a bachelor’s degree, particularly in psychology or criminal justice. So, when he met with a counselor at SCI Rockview one April morning, he agreed to be placed on a waitlist for college-in-prison programs supported by federal Pell Grants. 

For nearly 30 years, the U.S. government has barred incarcerated people from accessing these grants, which provide up to $7,395 in yearly financial aid to low-income students. Many people in prison had relied on the aid to pay for college, given the wages they earn inside, but the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act revoked their eligibility. As a result, college opportunities in prisons – of which there were hundreds – largely vanished.

That’s changing in July. More than 700,000 incarcerated people are expected to become eligible for aid, including some of the roughly 40,000 people in Pennsylvania state prisons. Most, though, won’t be able to access a college education right away. While several colleges in the state are set to operate programs this fall, according to the Department of Corrections, others will likely crop up over the next year. Some colleges may not offer programs at all. “This will be a work in progress,” a department spokesperson said. 

Even with programs and grants available, people inside may face educational challenges and barriers to access. Late last fall, about 100 people in Pennsylvania state prisons – nearly all men – were enrolled in college programs, while about 200 were waitlisted. Their choices for programs could be limited, as Pell funds often do not fully cover tuition at four-year universities. Enrolled students must learn with limited technology, restrictions on materials and facility lockdowns that can impact class schedules. 

Above all, people in prison need to know that the opportunity exists, and how it works. And many don’t.

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