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In a rare move strengthening education, the Oklahoma state Senate overwhelmingly supported a bill to restore access to financial aid to incarcerated students.
Co-authured by Senator Dave Rader (R-Tulsa) and state Rep. Daniel Pae (R-Lawton), Senate Bill 11 would repeal a ban on access to the Oklahoma Tuition Aid Grant Program (OTAG) for incarcerated students.
Despite the fact that several Oklahoma universities provide prison degree programs, those students haven’t been able to utilize state level financial aid to attend them since a ban was enacted in 1995, News on 6 reported. The move has forced imprisoned students to gather donations to further their education at institutions like Oklahoma Baptist University, Oklahoma Christian University and Langston University, the state’s only HBCU.
SB 11 passed two Senate committees with bipartisan support, and the full Oklahoma Senate approved the measure 42-1 on Feb. 28, sending it to the state House.
Prison Fellowship pushes for OTAG restoration for Oklahoma’s incarcerated students
Prison Fellowship, a religious nonprofit, is working with Sen. Rader and Rep. Pae to gain support for the bill’s final passage.
“No person is beyond God’s reach and redemption,” Prison Fellowship Government Affairs Manager David Jimenez told The Black Wall Street Times on Friday.
The national organization was founded in 1976 by Charles W. Colson, a former Richard Nixon aide who turned to faith after serving a seven-month prison sentence related to the infamous Watergate scandal.
“We want to ensure that every aspect of our justice system encourages and equips individuals to leave crime, addiction, incarceration and negative habits behind,” Jimenez added.
Prison Fellowship works across the nation to provide programs, support and scholarships to further criminal justice reform, noting on its website that the U.S. contains only 4% of the global population but 25% of the world’s prisoners.
Incarcerated students less likely to go back to prison, supporters of financial aid restoration say.
Oklahoma’s ban on OTAG disbursements for incarcerated students began in 1995, a year after then-U.S. Senator Joe Biden spearheaded the notorious 1994 crime bill, which expanded mass incarceration, disproportionally engulfing Black Americans.
“It was a big mistake that was made,” Biden said in 2019 while running for president.
Ironically, it was former, twice-impeached President Donald Trump who worked with then-Education Secretary Betsy Devos to restore access to federal Pell Grants for incarcerated students. It built upon a measure that then-President Obama pushed through despite Republican opposition during his term.
Supporters of SB 11 hope Oklahoma will follow suit.
“For too long, students who are incarcerated, students who have been defrauded by for-profit colleges, and students who have drug-related offenses have been blocked from receiving federal aid,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in 2020.
With the bill’s widespread support in the Republican-controlled state Senate, supporters of the measure are hopeful it will be passed by the House and signed by Republican Governor Kevin Stitt. Advocates add that the savings from re-incarcerating less people can be better spent on better policing, drug courts, and other state resources.
“We know that participants in correctional education are 50% less likely to recidivate compared to those who did not,” Jimenez told The Black Wall Street Times.