On July 31, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a new initiative, “The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program.” This proposed program would allow inmates to received Pell Grants to pursue college and trade school education. Pell Grants are federal funds available to low-income higher education students that don’t need to be repaid.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, center, speaks with inmates Alphonso Coates, bottom right, and Kenard Johnson, both participants in the Goucher College Prison Education Partnership at Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup, Friday, July 31, 2015, in Jessup, Md. After a roundtable discussion at the prison, the Education Department announced Friday that it would conduct a limited pilot program to give prisoners access to the Pell grants, allowing them to take college courses behind bars. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, center, speaks with inmates Alphonso Coates, bottom right, and Kenard Johnson. (AFRO File Photo)

“America is a nation of second chances,” Duncan said. “Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are and it can also be a cost-saver for the taxpayer.”

In 1994, a Republican-led Congress amended the 1965 Higher Education Act to eliminate Pell Grant eligibility for students in federal and state penal institutions. Ronald Moten, a District Republican who is a returning citizen and an anti-gang violence activist, said preventing inmates from getting Pell Grants was a mistake.

“When I was incarcerated in New Jersey, I had the chance to go to community college with the help of Pell Grants and I learned about African-American history and straightened myself up,” Moten, who attempted an unsuccessful run for the Ward 7 D.C. Council seat in 2012, said. “Taking college courses in prison helps people.  Classes gives people skill sets that will help them when they leave prison.”

According to a Department of Justice funded 2013 study from the RAND Corporation, inmates participating in correctional education – including college-level courses – were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than inmates who didn’t participate in correctional education programs.

The University of the District of Columbia (UDC) had a robust college education program for inmates at the Lorton Reformatory in Virginia. The program started in 1969 but closed in 1996 because of the District’s severe financial crisis at the time. Moten estimated that 97 percent of the people who attended UDC classes while at Lorton “were never locked up again.”

Debra Rowe, the executive director of Returning Citizens, an advocacy group for the city’s estimated 60,000 returning citizens, said she benefitted from UDC’s program. “I took courses while locked up in Lorton and it really changed my life,” Rowe said. “I really endorse what the Obama administration is doing because taking classes gives people options and broadens their outlook on life.”

Rowe said that female inmates will especially benefit from the Pell Grant pilot because education gives women a sense of individual achievement and higher self-esteem.

Michael Rogers, a spokesman for UDC, told the AFRO he has heard of the Pell Grant pilot program but there has been no discussion among university leaders as to whether the college education program for inmates will be reactivated.

In May, U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) joined Reps. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), and Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) to introduce a bill, “The Restoring Education and Learning Act” (REAL Act) which would restore Pell Grant eligibility to federal and state prisoners.

Edwards, a 2016 candidate for the U.S. Senate, was the chief sponsor of the bill. Edwards said that REAL Act will help former inmates compete in the nation’s economy. “We know that helping economically challenged individuals work toward post-secondary study and training provides a better future for all Americans,” she said. “We should provide such opportunities to all to ensure that the cyclical process of repeat incarceration does not continue.”

Only an act of Congress can make Pell Grants available to all incarcerated individuals. The Obama program will devise incentives to federal institutions and states and the District, to work in its pilot program to help inmates get access to the Pell Grant pilot program.

In the last several years, decreases to Pell Grant funding has prevented several low income and minority students from getting higher educations, according to news reports. News reports also suggest that a cut to federal funding is linked to low enrollment rates for HBCUs.

U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, isn’t a fan of the Obama program. “How we sustain the long-term sustainability of the Pell Grant program needs to be a national conversation, and as a part of that conversation, we should discuss whether this aid can help incarcerated individuals become productive members of society,” Kline said. “Unfortunately, the administration has chosen again to stifle an important debate by acting unilaterally and without regard for the law. As I have said time and time again, if the administration wants to see meaningful change take place, it must stop governing through executive fiat and start working with the people’s elected representatives in Congress.”

When Moten was told of Kline’s comments, he took exception to his fellow party member.

“This is a great thing that the Obama administration is doing,” he said. “It is long overdue.”