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OPINION

Education while incarcerated in Kansas can lead to post-prison success. Federally funded Pell Grants will help.

By Jeff Zmuda
Special to Gannett Kansas
Jeff Zmuda

A successful return to life after incarceration is far from a sure thing for too many of those who populate our prisons. Close to 98% of the men and women in Kansas prisons today will return to live as our neighbors and members of our society.

Yet access to a good job and a livable wage, one of the cornerstones of successful reentry, is beyond the reach of many who have paid their debt to society and are ready to rebuild their lives.

Jobs — good jobs with benefits — often require training or certification, or in many cases an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Thanks to the ongoing leadership of Gov. Laura Kelly and the support of policy makers and other advocates, one of the biggest barriers to success after release from prison continues to crumble.

In 2020, KDOC partnered with Kansas colleges and the Kansas Board of Regents to form the Kansas Consortium on Correctional Higher Education. The partnership coordinates and guides higher education programs in all Kansas correctional facilities. It is through this partnership that seven Kansas Colleges were named Second Chance Pell Grant sites last spring.

These grants were deemed “experimental” and support beginning programs across the U.S. In Kansas, the $2.2 million grant means access to technical education, associate and four-year degree opportunities for 700 KDOC residents. A great start, though this transformative opportunity benefits less than 10% of the Kansas total prison population today.

This is all about to change. Full access to federally funded Pell Grants has been restored for incarcerated individuals. These same individuals have been denied access to life-changing Pell grants through a 1994 federal crime. Funding to reinstate the program was included in the stimulus bill signed into law just before Christmas.

That means incarcerated Kansans can once again apply for federal Pell Grants to pay for college courses and career technical education programs. 

There will be those who object to the use of public funds in this way. But the connection to education attainment and reduced recidivism is well-documented. And the truth is a small fraction of all new Pell Grant funds will support prison programs.

It’s a wise investment for our society and state. A recent study by the Rand Corporation indicates for every $1 invested in higher education for incarcerated students, taxpayers save — on average — between $4 and $5 in three-year reincarceration costs.

Many individuals in our prisons have become disenfranchised through the criminal justice system and the educational system. Pell grants alone aren’t the answer, but with wider access and availability to training and education, hundreds of individuals who will one day return to Kansas communities will no longer lack the training to fill good jobs that provide a livable wage.

In turn this directly benefits local and state economies and improves the quality of life for all involved.

The decision to pursue higher education is a defining moment for anyone. For incarcerated individuals, the positive impact of successfully completing a certification or attaining a degree are immense.

The end results of removing this one barrier to successful reentry will ripple through their lives, the lives of their families and ultimately benefit all Kansans.

Jeff Zmuda is the Kansas secretary of corrections.