December 6, 2023

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Stacy Burnett is the Access to Prison Education Initiative Manager at JSTOR Digital Library.

Headshot by Stacy Burnett.

Stacy Burnett

Permission granted to Stacy Burnett

The US Supreme Court will soon decide the fate of President Joe Biden’s student debt relief plan. O 26 million applicants for student loan forgiveness waiting for a verdict on whether their requests will pass. Still, even if Biden’s plan stands, a significant population is still at risk of being left out: an estimated 200,000 people behind bars who have student debt.

Based on average annual household income for those incarcerated who carry student debt, most will qualify for $20,000 student debt cancellation. The problem is that they can’t apply—not because they’re ineligible, but because they’re overlooked.

The application process they relied on the telephone or the Internet, neither of which are readily available to inmates. A paper version was available, but there is no distribution plan for it in the Carceral environment.

The disadvantages of leaving these students are significant. Ninety-five percent of inmates are released, and many emerge with debts that hinder their ability to reintegrate and contribute to their communities. Whether it’s not being able to buy a house or delaying having children, the problems facing American student loans are well known. But the burden is higher for the formerly incarcerated. A person with a criminal record earns 52% less per year than someone without a conviction.

Assuming Biden’s student debt relief plan moves forward, we must address the inequities facing incarcerated borrowers by providing viable ways to access the program. First, correctional facilities can add Department of Education toll-free numbers to an approved caller list. Prisons already do toll free numbers available imprisoned people to follow the rules laid down in Prison Rape Elimination Act. Additionally, each correctional facility could post notices inside housing units and in their general and law libraries to alert people to call and request student debt relief.

The JSTOR Access in Prison Initiative has compiled a fact sheet, available here, with help from the Center for American Progress to help incarcerated people know how to ask for help. Even if the Supreme Court strikes down student debt cancellation, incarcerated borrowers should still be able to access or the toll-free number for Federal Student Aid at all correctional facilities to take advantage of the income-based repayment plans available to them. every other citizen. Devices must approve phone numbers and websites and prohibit telecommunications service providers from charging for phone calls or screen time necessary for use. These small measures can help ensure that those with student debt scattered across thousands of prisons receive the relief they are legally entitled to.

Ten million Americans cycle through the prison industrial complex each year, with nearly 2 million people incarcerated each day. Sealing people inside concrete blocks not only hides them from society, but also ensures that information from the outside does not penetrate these walls. Not being able to access programs available to every second American can perpetuate harm that lasts long after a sentence is over.

The most current iteration of this information deficit is the difficulty of accessing student debt cancellation. If Biden’s plan works, we can change that. And if not, we should still learn to explain the inequities our incarcerated citizens face in accessing the information and programs necessary to change their lives for the better.

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