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Secretary Cardona Champions Prison Education Programs in Speech to American Correctional Association

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Thank you, Denise, for the kind introduction and your leadership. Happy New Year everyone. I applaud the American Correctional Association for hosting this symposium. To everyone working to make education available to people who are incarcerated: thank you.

Recently, my Department held a listening session with justice-impacted individuals. And one woman spoke of education’s power to transform lives.

Her name is Jessica. Like so many people who wind up in prison, Jessica was living an unstable life. She came up through the foster system, experienced substance abuse, had multiple run-ins with the criminal justice system, and so on.

Then, she had the chance to enroll in a Jackson College program through the Michigan Department of Corrections – made possible by the Obama-Biden administration’s new Second Chance Pell initiative.

Education gave Jessica a chance to rewrite the narrative of her life.

“Once I was accepted into college,” she said, “It was like I was no longer in prison. I was no longer focused on completing my sentence. I was focused on completing my education.”

How incredible is that?

That was 2019. Today, Jessica is out of prison. And this very month, she’s starting a Master’s program. Her goal? To teach incarcerated students, and quote, “change lives the way my professors changed mine.”

I bet you all have similar stories. Stories of education giving people a chance to find passion and purpose, to prepare for a career upon reentry, to better support their families, to avoid future involvement with the criminal justice system.

The data shows this. People who access prison education are 43 percent less likely to recidivate than those who do not.

They also benefit from higher rates of employment and higher earnings – strengthening entire communities. Even children of incarcerated parents who go to college are themselves more likely to go to college.

And the benefits of prison education programs extend to those serving life sentences too. They too have families. They too deserve dignity and purpose.

This is about humanity. And it’s about safety.

Research has shown that access to education reduces violence and other infractions among incarcerated individuals. Personally, I have many friends who are corrections officers and I know that safety is constantly on the minds of their spouses and families.

Last year, my team had the chance to tour a Second Chance Pell program between Calvin University and a high security correctional facility in Ionia, Michigan. Before the program, the place was plagued by violence… So much so that a state senator told us they used to call it the “Gladiator” facility.

Now, with educational opportunities – including for individuals serving long-term and life sentences – the facility is a place of care for self and others, with connections and community. Even the once-skeptical corrections officers are believers in the power of education to change the culture of the facility.

That’s the level of transformation we’re talking about. If we want safer working conditions and safer living conditions, prison education can get us there!

Second Chance Pell changed lives. And it also changed minds.

In 2020, Congress finally changed the law. And this past summer, the Biden-Harris administration implemented the new Prison Education Programs framework, giving as many as 760,000 incarcerated students access to Pell Grants for the first time in 30 years! Like I said, this is a historic moment. So how do we meet it?

I’m encouraged by the progress Second Chance Pell sites are making to transition to the new framework. But so far, we’ve had just three new applicants seeking to join the new Prison Education Program.

We have to do better. Maintaining current capacity cannot be our end gal. Jessica was among just 42 women to gain access to her Second Chance program, out of 2,200 in her facility.

Imagine the lives and communities we could change if everyone in Jessica’s shoes had access to high-quality postsecondary education?

We must Raise the Bar for students behind bars!

Advocates say it often takes enormous activism and mobilization on the outside to create greater opportunity on the inside…To get correctional departments and colleges to create new programs.

There are many reasons for that – but I’m proud that limited access to Pell Grants is no longer one of them!

Pell is giving people who are incarcerated an ability to pay for education – but it’s on us to make it high-quality and available.

Today, I ask you this: don’t wait around for someone else to initiate this work. Embrace your roles as leaders in starting, strengthening, and scaling quality prison education programs. Get in touch with your local colleges and universities. Offer to partner up!

As Secretary of Education, I commit to you that this administration is your partner. We can help break down the barriers. We can work with your Governors and state higher education officials. We can provide best practices and technical assistance to get new programs off the ground.

And, we can help you identify the most in-demand career pathways in your state. Because thanks to historic investments in infrastructure, energy, semiconductors and other fields, there are more and more employers out there willing to hire people who’ve done time, if they have the right credentials.

As an educator, I’ve always believed that every person deserves the opportunity to become the best version of themselves. But tragically, many incarcerated individuals have never been afforded the opportunity…

So, how about we be the ones who give it to them?

Let’s meet this moment. It will take innovation, persistence, and hard work to build this into the infrastructure and culture of our correctional facilities, but this is why we signed up to be leaders, right?

Let’s give more students like Jessica the chance to reclaim their lives and rewrite their own narratives.

So to our partners in the American Corrections Association, Director Green, President Robinson, President-elect Dixon, State Secretaries of Corrections, and higher education leaders – let’s be innovative and bold.

Let’s hold ourselves accountable for improved results across the country, reducing recidivism, providing hope, and creating safer communities – on the inside and the outside.

Together we can ensure words like justice, rehabilitation, and corrections live up to their names – and work to change the system and our country for the better.

Thank you!

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