STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
There's no doubt that we spend tax money on convicts in prison. The question at the center of this story is whether the United States should spend tax money for convicts to learn.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Tomorrow, the Obama administration promotes a program designed to help inmates attend college. It would allow some prisoners a chance to get grants to pay for classes. The administration is doing this many years after Congress rejected the idea.
INSKEEP: It's the latest move in a larger debate over whether prison is meant to punish or to reform. Here's NPR'S Gabrielle Emanuel.
GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: The new plan would create a limited pilot program, allowing some students in prison to use Pell Grants to pay for college classes. The key word here is limited because there's only so much the administration can do. To understand why, we have to go back to November 1993.
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SEN DIANNE FEINSTEIN: The Senate will now resume consideration of S.1607, the crime bill.
EMANUEL: The era of Three Strikes had begun, and lawmakers in Washington were in a bipartisan race to prove they were tough on crime. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, introduced an amendment that would ultimately ban prisoners from receiving Pell Grants. Her argument?
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SEN KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Because prisoners have zero income, they have been able to step to the front of the line and push law-abiding citizens out of the way.
EMANUEL: Hutchison added that letting prisoners use federal dollars to pay for college isn't fair to taxpayers, law-abiding citizens or crime victims. Two decades later, she wants to be clear. She's not opposed to prison education. But, Hutchison doesn't think federal Pell Grants should pay for it.
HUTCHISON: I think it should be a state priority and a state initiative.
EMANUEL: Tyrone Werts says he watched lawmakers debate the crime bill on TV from his prison cell. He'd been convicted of second-degree murder for his role in a deadly robbery when he arrived at Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania at the age of 23.
TYRONE WERTS: My reading scores was like second grade. My math skills was second, third grade.
EMANUEL: Behind bars, Werts studied. He got his GED, then he earned his Bachelor's, paid for with Pell Grants.
WERTS: Graterford, at the time, when we had Pell Grants, was actually like a college or university. The arts flourished. Guys were having study groups. They were at the table, writing papers.
EMANUEL: But, Werts says that stopped when the money dried up. After nearly 37 years in prison, his sentence was commuted. Now he helps released prisoners re-enter society.
WERTS: And I see the marked difference between those guys who went to college in prison and those guys who didn't go to school. You know, they think totally different.
EMANUEL: A 2013 study by the Rand Corp. found that education behind bars greatly reduces the likelihood of a former prisoner committing another crime. But federal law still prohibits Pell Grants for prisoners, which brings us full circle to tomorrow's announcement. While only Congress can roll back the law, the education department does have one option. It can waive certain rules for research purposes and extend grants to a small number of prisoners, an exception to the rule, not rewriting the rule itself. Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News, Washington.
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