Statehouses Debate Inmate Student Aid

THE debate over whether to provide free college educations for felons is brewing in statehouses across the country.

Utah corrections officials felt so strongly about the benefits of education, they found enough state money to make up for the lost federal Pell grants.

New York, facing budget problems, felt differently. Soon, its 3,500 inmates in college programs will go back to washing floors and mowing lawns.

Last year, Congress prohibited prisoners from continuing to obtain federally funded Pell grants for post-secondary education. And last month, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit by an inmate seeking to finish his degree with federal student grants.

``That's the way it should be,'' says Rep. Bart Gordon (D) of Tennessee, who helped get the change through Congress. ``Every time a prisoner gets a Pell grant, it simply means a traditional student, someone who didn't commit a crime, is getting less.''

Before the program was killed, some 28,000 prisoners received $36 million in Pell grants each year. Overall, Pell grants totaling $6.3 billion are awarded to about 4 million students annually.

Many prison officials rue the program's passing. For a small amount of money, they argue, Pell grants to prisoners made a big difference.

Pell grants for inmates are ``a tough sell,'' admits former Federal Bureau of Prisons director Michael Quinlan. Only the ``rare, rare'' prisoner is ever rehabilitated, he says, but even turning around a handful is worth the program's cost. ``What we have to remember is that 99 percent of these people are coming out some day. It's not that they deserve it, or that the government has a responsibility. It's really for our own, for society's sake.''

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