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  August 1, 2015

Prisoners Now Eligible for Pell Grants to Earn College Degrees

TRNN's Eddie Conway, who used Pell Grants to earn three degrees while in prison, says Obama's pilot program to offer Pell Grants to prisoners will help reduce mass incarceration by reducing recidivism and combating the impact of mass incarceration
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Marshall "Eddie" Conway was a Leader of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party. Conway was released from prison on March 4, 2014 after having served 43 years and 11 months. He is currently a producer at the Real News Network.


JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

On Friday the Obama administration announced the restoration of federal Pell grants for prisoners to pursue higher education. The move aims to create a, quote, fairer more effective criminal justice system, reduced recidivism, and combat the impact of mass incarceration on communities. Pell grants for prisoners have been banned since 1994, but this initiative called the Second Chance pilot program gets around that barrier because it's an experiment only open to a limited number of prisoners.

Now joining us to discuss this is our very own Eddie Conway. Last March Eddie was released from prison after spending 44 years locked up as a political prisoner. During that time using Pell grants during the '80s, before they were banned, Eddie received three college degrees. Thanks so much for joining us, Eddie.

EDDIE CONWAY: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: So Eddie, start off by giving us your reaction as someone who benefited from Pell grants to the fact that they've now been restored, and a whole generation of people weren't able to take part in this opportunity, because they'd been banned since '94.

CONWAY: Yes, I think it's really a positive move and a positive step forward. And up until this particular time, I think it's been a mistake not to allow prisoners to get a higher education, because it really has an impact on the kind of person that's returned back to the community.

NOOR: And so talk about the impact it had on you. You got three college degrees using Pell grants, and then you went on to get a masters degree, which wasn't--which you had to fund yourself. And then during your time in prison, you worked with many other prisoners. And now since you've been back you've been doing work in communities that have been hard hit by mass incarceration.

CONWAY: Well, the one thing that's important about higher education is it allows you to study, interact, and understand other people and how systems work, and to help train and guide young people in terms of mentoring. And it changed the climate and atmosphere within the prison. The more people you had pursuing that higher education, the more positive that prison population is. Because it actually affects other people that's not in school, but they can see role models. And they can [emanate] that kind of behavior.

So it has a wide range impact on the population inside the jail, but it also equips the people that return to the community to function as positive citizens.

NOOR: And this won't come as a surprise to many of us, but Republicans have already introduced a measure in Congress that would ban this route the Obama administration is taking to get around the official ban on federal Pell grants for prisoners. What's your response to this?

CONWAY: Well, it's shortsighted on the part of Republicans, because the Rand corporation did a survey and they made a determination that the prisoners that leave the prison system with a higher education, a bachelor's degree, has a 43 percent more chance of staying out in the community. Which basically in general math means that one out of every two prisoners that would have come back to prison actually don't come back because of the higher education.

And the money that's invested in the higher education is returned five times over to the community, to society itself, because they don't have to incarcerate those prisoners again and go through the trial system. But also they don't have to deal with the damage and the destruction that results from people breaking the law again and returning back into the prison system.

NOOR: So this Republican reaction, and I'll read a quote from a Congressman, Chris Collins, this was in the AP today. And he introduced the measure in Congress. And he said, this measure would put the cost of a free college education for criminals on the backs of taxpayers. So you're saying those kind of thoughts are really shortsighted.

CONWAY: Well, it's shortsighted because the cost of reincarcerating people once they get out and go back through the trial, criminal justice system, and end up back in prison, and then it's somewhere, $30,000-40,000 a year to house them when in fact you can give them an education for $5,000 and they can stay out. So it's like a--.

NOOR: Well, stay out and also be able to give back to the community and prepare to be more engaged and effective members and share what they've learned, and be able to give back.

CONWAY: Yeah. And be role models for everybody in the community. And at the same time, develop tighter, stronger bonds with their families, because then they're forward-looking and forward-thinking in addition to the skill set that they will bring to the community and to society in general.

NOOR: And it will also help them with--because it will help them with job training. It will help them get back on their feet once they're out, as well.

CONWAY: Yes. That is correct. I mean, if you were going to invest any money in the criminal justice system at all it needs to be in higher education. That's an absolutely wonderful way in which to spend dollars and to make society safer.

NOOR: Well Eddie Conway, thanks so much for joining us.

CONWAY: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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