WASHINGTON – A new federal program that gives thousands of inmates in state and federal prison access to higher education while imprisoned not only can reduce recidivism but promotes safer communities, Secretary of Education John King said Tuesday.

“By creating educational opportunities for folks who are incarcerated, (they) … acquire all kinds of skills, education and job training that will allow them to return successfully into the community,” King said at an event to review the Second Chance Pell Grant program launched last year.

The pilot program allows about 12,000 prisoners who meet the criteria to receive Pell grants and who are eligible for release within five years to take college classes in prison or online, offered by more than 60 colleges and universities. The maximum Pell grant is $5,815.

King recalled getting kicked out of high school as an angry teenager. “They didn’t give up on me,” King said. “I am only able to be here today because people gave me a meaningful second chance.”

Jason Bell, 36, now a business student studying for his associate degree at Lake Michigan College, served more than 12 years in prison for a robbery conviction in 2003. Bad at schoolwork, Bell had dropped out of school after eighth grade and hadn’t been back in a classroom until he was in prison.

At the Second Chance event, Bell said he couldn’t read or write well, but enrolled in classes while in prison. He when he completed his GED in 2006 while still in jail.

Before going to jail, Bell said, he lived in an environment where “you had to be tough. So violence was the way to handle all disputes.”

But taking classes has changed his thinking.  “It doesn’t have to be violent. It can be intelligence. I can use intelligence to fight battles instead of misuse language or violence,” Bell said.

According to a study by the RAND Corporation, incarcerated people who participate in prison education programs are 43 percent less likely to go back to prison than those who do not take classes.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said at the event that more focus should be put on prevention. “No matter how many prisons we build, how many long sentences that we impose, we are not going to jail our way into safer communities.”

Bell plans to earn a bachelor’s degree soon.

“It gives people confidence within themselves. Ok, I stumble. Maybe I have even failed. But I’m back up now. I’m continuing on with my life,” he said.