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Learn more about JFF
Center for Justice & Economic Advancement

Normalizing Education Resource Center


Pell Grants and Prisons


Access to federal support is a critical component for access to postsecondary education while incarcerated.   

On July 1, 2023, the federal Pell Grant once again became available for students who are incarcerated after a nearly 30-year hiatus. In the early 1990s, an estimated 772 postsecondary education programs were operating in approximately 1,287 prisons across the United States. In 1993, 23,000 learners who were incarcerated received Pell Grants. The passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, which prohibits individuals who were incarcerated from receiving Pell Grants, changed that progress. By 1997, the number of programs plummeted to only eight.

Before the full reinstatement of Pell eligibility in July 2023, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) provided opportunities for currently incarcerated students enrolled with select institutions to access Pell as part of a pilot known as the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative. 

220925-2nd Chance Pell Experiment Timeline-AH-V2

JFF’s Ready for Pell Initiative

JFF’s Center for Justice & Economic Advancement launched its Ready for Pell initiative in 2021 with financial support from Ascendium Education Group. The initiative helps colleges and universities build or expand postsecondary education in prison programs and navigate the reinstatement of Pell Grants, giving learners who are incarcerated new opportunities to attain postsecondary education and launch pathways to quality jobs and economic advancement.

Streamline Pell Implementation  

  • Build Pell Grant deployment capacity in 2023-2024 to maximize benefits and financial aid empowerment for students.

  • Train administrators on Pell Grant rules to help students protect their grant dollars from inefficient system practices.

  •  Identify strategies to build access and capacity in postsecondary institutions to strengthen prison programming and expand administration of Pell Grants.

  • Strengthen partnerships with correctional and state agencies to expand and sustain postsecondary education in prison and increase Pell implementation. 

 Provide Equitable Access and Outcomes  

  • Develop recruitment strategies that consider eligibility and career pathways and maximize equity.  

  • Implement evidence-based wraparound support, such as academic advising and career planning, with a focus on credit mobility and degree completion.  

 Launch or Expand Postsecondary Education in Prison Programs 

  • Maximize credential offerings aligned to labor market needs and student aspiration. 

  • Bolster student support and expand social networks for learners who are incarcerated through meaningful engagement with campus-based student success initiatives and community partnerships.  

Ready for Pell Partners

Ready for Pell Contributors