Oregon Senate passes bill to expand college access for prison inmates

The legislation comes as Pell grant eligibility expands to include prisoners

By: - April 18, 2023 4:54 pm

Oregon inmates may receive higher education programs through a bill in the Legislature. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The state Senate has passed a bill aimed at making higher education classes and programs more accessible for prison inmates, a move intended to boost their odds of success after their release.

Senate Bill 270 passed late Monday with a bipartisan 23-5 vote. The measure, which now goes to the House, would allow the Oregon Department of Corrections to enter into agreements with community colleges to offer academic programs. 

The department could forge agreements with colleges across the state. This means that a community college with a robust program potentially could serve various prisons. 

However, the bill doesn’t allocate any money for programs, and agency officials have told lawmakers that facilities would need more resources for prisons to offer higher education programs.

Other legislation addresses higher education programs in prisons. Last week, the Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 269, which would require the Oregon Department of Corrections and Higher Education Coordinating Commission to work more closely on policies and strategies to educate adults in custody. Both bills face votes in the House.

“These bills represent an incredible opportunity for the state of Oregon,” chief sponsor Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said in his speech on the Senate floor. “We’re moving from just punishing crime to preventing it from happening in the first place. These bills will make our communities safer, our workforce stronger, and free up millions in taxpayer dollars to build a brighter future for our state.”

The move comes amid a national shift towards more higher education opportunities for inmates. The federal government expanded the Pell grant program, which provides financial aid for college, to include inmates starting in July.

The Oregon Department of Corrections currently has two pilot programs that will provide online education programs at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and Snake River Correctional Institution starting in September, according to testimony the department submitted.

However, the agency lacks the staff, equipment and technology needed to enroll students at the other 10 prisons in the state, Larry Bennett, the assistant director for Correctional Services, said in submitted testimony.

Department officials are hopeful the pilot  will expand eventually and ensure access to educational opportunities for adults in custody in all facilities statewide, Jennifer Black, a spokesperson for the agency, said in a statement to the Capital Chronicle. 

At the same time, federal Pell grant regulations for prison education programs are burdensome. As a result, some colleges will not be ready to offer classes this fall and others have decided they won’t provide education in prisons through the Pell grant program, Black said.

More than 9,600 adults in custody are eligible for college education opportunities and graduated from high school or obtained a GED, according to agency data. That’s nearly four in five people in Oregon’s prison population. Nearly 2,600 others in prison do not have a high school diploma.


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Ben Botkin
Ben Botkin

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Ben Botkin has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.