New Jersey inmates may soon qualify for state scholarships, grants

At a hearing Thursday, inmate advocates urge New Jersey lawmakers to open the state's financial aid program to prisoners. (Phil Gregory/WHYY)

At a hearing Thursday, inmate advocates urge New Jersey lawmakers to open the state's financial aid program to prisoners. (Phil Gregory/WHYY)

The New Jersey Legislature is considering a bill that would allow inmates to apply for state financial aid.

For Highland Park resident Boris Franklin, taking college courses while incarcerated transformed a maximum-security prison into an institution of learning.

“It was like nothing you had ever seen. Inmates were shouting out of cell windows at other inmates to borrow books and to make copies of articles for them. Guys were arguing on the yard about Marx and Socrates,” said Franklin who spent 11 years behind bars and is now studying psychology at Rutgers University. “The prison began to swell with hope.”

Allowing inmates to be eligible for student grants makes economic sense, said Chris Agans, director of New Jersey STEP, a consortium that works with colleges to provide education for students in prison.

“For every dollar spent, you save $5. And that’s on reincarceration, that’s on policing, and that means also less victims in the state of New Jersey,” Agans said. “So we can talk about continuing to punish folks, or we can talk about ways in which we can reduce crime, reduce victimization, and save money in the state of New Jersey.  And this is one way to do that.”

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who now runs a program helping inmates adjust to society when they’re released, said being able to get grants to take college courses would help them get the education to be productive citizens and prevent them from committing more crimes.

“Nobody has any problem building more prison cells, but God forbid we should educate people. This is as easy as it gets, but we have to really change it,” he said. “If we’re serious about reducing recidivism, we have to create opportunities.”

No one spoke against the measure, and the Senate Higher Education Committee voted to advance it Thursday.

Explanation statement on SB2055:

This bill would eliminate the statutory provision prohibiting persons who are incarcerated from receiving State student grants and scholarships. An incarcerated person would be subject to the same statutes and regulations governing the receipt of a grant or scholarship through a State-administered program as are all other applicants for this aid.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.