Although nearly 300,000 people were released from jails, prisons, and detention facilities as a preventive measure during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States currently incarcerates roughly 1.8 million people, despite dubious public safety benefits and proven, significant harm to entire communities (Kang-Brown et al., 2021; Rabuy & Kopf, 2015; Bloom, 2010).

Recent high-profile murders of Black men by police officers, however, coupled with popular critiques of the carceral system* — such as Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th — are spurring broad-based public movements for systemic reform. Foundations and donors, too, are expanding and diversifying their giving in this field.

Funding Higher Education for Incarcerated People

Perhaps no other avenue shows more promise for widespread support than postsecondary education in prison. Thanks to recent changes in federal legislation for Pell grants, donors’ money and higher education’s efforts will now go much further.

According to the most recent landscape study available, in the 2019–2020 academic year, there were 372 postsecondary education institutions offering credit-bearing courses in prison in 49 states. Nearly 34,000 students participated in these programs (Royer et al., 2021). As the Vera Institute of Justice estimates that up to 463,000 incarcerated people will be eligible for Pell grants when they become available in 2023, the number of programs is poised to jump in the years to come (Martinez-Hill & Delaney, 2021).

A Moment for Hope

Higher education in prison couples carceral system reform with one of philanthropy’s biggest priorities in the past century: education. This may make for an attractive combination for funders. But perhaps Jose Bou, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston University while incarcerated, offered the most compelling reason to support such programming when he explained to an NPR reporter that attending university in prison was “like being released every day” (Jung, 2019, para. 5).

Read the full article about Pell grants by Tiana Hawver and Aaron Yore-VanOosterhout at Johnson Center.