Donna Edwards

Since coming to Congress, I have made it a priority to visit prisons and jails across Maryland to better understand the challenges facing this underserved and often forgotten population. Earlier this year, I visited the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup to meet with incarcerated individuals taking classes at Goucher College. They are part of The Goucher Prison Education Partnership, which gives incarcerated men and women the opportunity to pursue a college education. The men and women I met were committed to getting an education and getting their lives back on track.

These are exactly the types of programs we should be pursuing across Maryland and our country. Sadly, Congress is standing in the way of common sense reform.

The statistics are startling. When Congress took away Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals in 1994, the prison rate nearly doubled in a decade to 1.6 million, many of whom were repeat offenders — at great cost to taxpayers.

At Jessup, on average, the cost to imprison an inmate ranges between $35,000 to $40,000 a year. A Pell Grant costs less than $6,000 each year, one-sixth the cost of incarceration.

Education is the gateway to success for all segments of our country, including the incarcerated — but Pell Grants have the added benefit of reducing recidivism. According to a 2013 study funded by the Justice Department, incarcerated individuals who participated in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than those who did not participate. With more than a half a million incarcerated individuals scheduled for release by the end of this year alone, it is morally and fiscally responsible to ensure that those returning home have the tools they need to obtain a quality education and the ability to contribute to their communities.

That’s why I introduced H.R. 2521, the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act of 2015. The REAL Act would reinstate Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated individuals across our country, ensuring that more programs like the one at Goucher College can take root. At the end of July, President Obama announced a pilot program to do just that, and I stood side by side with his administration when they announced the program at Goucher College at the Maryland Correctional Institution.

But in order to make education a reality, we need Congress to act and reinstate Pell Grants for our incarcerated men and women. We know the power that a quality education can have on an individual, broadening their horizons and ensuring they have a fair shot at the American dream. For more than two decades, we’ve withheld this pathway from millions of our fellow Americans, at great harm to our communities and economy. Today, we have the opportunity to change that. We should seize it.

Donna Edwards is a Member of Congress from Maryland’s 4th Congressional District and a candidate for the United States Senate.