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Inmates At Donovan State Prison Eligible For Federal College Funds

The entrance to the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa is shown ...

Photo by Angela Carone

Above: The entrance to the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa is shown in this undated photo.

Southwestern College in Chula Vista will begin offering the federal Pell Grants in the fall to Donovan prisoners as part of a pilot program started by the Obama administration.

About two dozen inmates at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa will receive federal Pell Grants and classes in business administration in the fall.

Pell Grants have been off limits to prisoners since 1994, when Congress enacted a ban on financial aid for inmates as part of several tough-on-crime policies. Last year, President Barack Obama superseded the ban with a temporary pilot program to offer the grants to about 12,000 inmates. Under the Higher Education Act, the secretary of education can waive such restrictions to conduct pilots.

Called the Second Chance Pell Pilot, the U.S. Department of Education will offer inmates within five years of release up to $5,775 each through 67 campuses nationwide. Southwestern College is the only San Diego County campus to participate.

"Southwestern is making a very aggressive effort to serve our community, regardless of who and where," said Patrice Milkovich, Southwestern's liaison for inmate education. "When you look at the population down at (Donovan state prison), they're in our boundary and we're committed to provide education."

Milkovich said Southwestern began offering financial literacy and geography courses at the prison last year and demand for college classes quickly grew.

"Once we started, the enthusiasm was amazing," she said. "They were engaged, they were respectful, they were inquisitive."

Vice President for Academic Affairs Kathy Tyner said the Pell Grants will provide funding for books and materials, a major sticking point as the college looked to expand courses at the prison.

Beginning next semester, Southwestern faculty will travel to the prison to conduct classes. Student inmates will take courses to qualify for an associate's degree in business administration.

"It's in the interest of all of our communities to provide education for these students so that when they get out they don't go back to a life of crime, but they actually can get jobs that provide living wages," Tyner said.

A 2013 study by the nonpartisan RAND Corp. showed prisoners who participated in college, GED or vocational classes were 13 percent more likely than those who did not to find employment and stay out of prison upon release. The researchers estimated taxpayers saved $5 in incarceration costs for every $1 they spent on inmate education.

Milkovich said she believes inmate education has an even broader impact. She said student inmates told her their children, who are more likely to fall into crime than other children, were inspired and motivated to hear their parent was going to college from behind bars.

"They're positive role models for their peers (in prison)," she said. "But they're really positive role models for their families."

A federal bill to lift the ban on Pell Grants for prisoners died in committee last year. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced another in June that remains in committee.

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