© 2024 WHRO Public Media
5200 Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk VA 23508
757.889.9400 | info@whro.org
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Groups celebrate full year of Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners to earn college degrees

Darryl Byers-Robinson speaks at a celebration of the first year of the reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated people on July 1, 2024 in Richmond, Virginia.
Charlotte Rene Woods / Virginia Mercury
Darryl Byers-Robinson speaks at a celebration of the first year of the reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated people on July 1, 2024 in Richmond, Virginia.

This story was reported and written by our media partner the Virginia Mercury.

Darryl Byers-Robinson choked up as he stood before a crowd of about 30 at Virginia’s Department of Corrections headquarters in Richmond on Monday with various advocacy groups and members of Virginia’s DOC.

The groups had gathered to celebrate the first year since the full reestablishment of eligibility for incarcerated people to receive Pell Grants. The grants, a federal subsidy for some qualifying undergraduate students, have not been applicable to incarcerated people for much of the past 30 years. That’s because the passage of the 1994 Violent Crime Bill made incarceration a disqualifier for Pell Grants.

But Byers-Robinson attributes his participation in a pilot program that allowed him to receive his associates degree as an example of how higher education can change someone’s life. His voice cracked and eyes watered as he recalled beginning his post-incarceration journey.

“I remember the day when I got released — one of the things I held on tightly to in my folder was my degree,” Byers-Robinson said. “I knew it was going to give me an opportunity to do something powerful.”

He has since gone on to serve as a pastor and public speaker. He’s also currently involved as an organizer with Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

Byers-Robinson earned his degree by participating in the pilot program while incarcerated in New York through Bard College. Around that time in 2015, there were also four colleges in Virginia that had been part of a national Pell pilot program through the U.S. Department of Education. Flash forward to July 2023, and Pell became fully accessible to people behind bars.

There are currently 10 correctional facilities in Virginia that have established partnerships with community colleges for inmates to pursue associates or career technical education degrees with Pell Grants, as of July 1, 2024.

The number of colleges is expected to grow; Virginia Wesleyan and Patrick Henry Community College are currently going through the application process to partner with correctional facilities, officials said Monday.

Both Rev. Kieth Jones, a Virginia Interfaith Center board member, and Virginia DOC director Chadwick Johnson noted the role that education plays in reducing recidivism.

“The more education we can provide, the better outcomes are,” Johnson said of people being more prepared to find work and less likely to reoffend.

A January 2023 national studyshowed that prison education programs reduced recidivism by about 15% while rates of employment for ex-offenders had increased about 7%.

But there’s still more work to be done, Dotson said.

Some of that entails expanding high speed internet access for incarcerated students to be able to take advantage of virtual learning options through their colleges. Currently, students are limited to on-site classroom locations in their prisons.

Former Fluvanna Correctional Center For Women inmate Allison Kroboth recalled at Monday’s event the roundabout ways she had to retrieve research materials for coursework while earning her associates degree in 2013.

She had to fill out a form through her prison and then volunteers with Piedmont Virginia Community College would research the requested subjects that Kroboth would then have to pay 10 cents per page to get her hands on.

“That was a long process,” she said. “So we had to go about our assignments way in advance to make sure there was time for someone to get our research to us.”

Dotson said that’s where investing in some on-site technology like tablets could help students.

“Are there any legislators that want to toss us some money? We’ll use it for education, I promise,” Dotson said.

Meanwhile, like Byers-Robinson, Kroboth used her degree to go into advocacy work for people with similar lived experiences to her. In addition to being a website engineer for Resilience Education, she is a mentorship program coordinator for the nonprofit that connects formerly incarcerated people seeking to use their degrees and reestablish their lives.

It’s a chance for these people “to come together and learn from each other,” Kroboth said of the mentorship programs.

The significance of the moment wasn’t lost on Byers-Robinson, who was a featured speaker Monday.

“I am standing here as an example for all of the people in prison,” he said.

The world changes fast.

Keep up with daily local news from WHRO. Get local news every weekday in your inbox.

Sign-up here.