Dyjuan Tatro grew up in a poor neighborhood in Albany, N.Y., where gunshots were common and education inaccessible. Around 10th grade, Dyjuan dropped out and was selling drugs. A few years later, when he was 20, he was involved in a shooting and sentenced to prison for assault.
Thankfully, that was just the first chapter of Dyjuan’s story. While incarcerated, Dyjuan was able to access the education he had missed as a teenager. He was accepted to the Bard Prison Initiative’s postsecondary education program, where he joined BPI’s debate team — which drew national attention after defeating Harvard University. By the time Dyjuan got out of prison, he had finished a mathematics major and earned a bachelor’s degree from Bard College. Today, he works as a government affairs and advancement officer for BPI.
In America, individuals released from prison often return to crime. One study published in 2018, which analyzed data from 23 states, found that 37 percent of those released in 2012 returned to prison within three years. Of those released in 2010, 46 percent returned to prison within five years.
But the recidivism rate is far lower for people who are able to get some postsecondary education while in prison. Fewer than 3 percent of graduates of BPI, which is based in New York, return to prison. In contrast, well over 30 percent of individuals released from the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision return to custody within just three years. Other colleges with similar postsecondary education programs for prisoners also boast lower recidivism statistics than their state averages.
Providing education to the incarcerated is a win-win — it reduces future crime rates and saves public funds that otherwise would be spent keeping people in jail or prison.
Unfortunately, however, Dyjuan’s ability to access a postsecondary education while incarcerated is far from typical. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act rendered anyone behind bars ineligible to receive federal Pell Grants. These grants, which give impoverished students financial aid for postsecondary education, had long been a critical funding mechanism for in-prison college programs. The Pell Grant ban put a virtual end to postsecondary education for prisoners who weren’t able to take advantage of privately funded programs like Bard’s or who didn’t have greater familial financial support.
This situation remained largely unchanged until the announcement of the Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program in 2015. By expanding educational opportunities for some people behind bars, the program aimed to help individuals returning home acquire work, financially support their families and claim a second chance for a better life.
The Pell Pilot Program currently allows around 10,000 students at selected institutions to receive Pell Grant funding each year to attend classes. While better than nothing, there would be hundreds of thousands of individuals who would be eligible to receive Pell Grant funding if the ban was lifted.
While at least part of the improved recidivism rates depends on personal characteristics of the people who seek out educational opportunities, the findings of multiple studies that attempt to account for these differences reinforce the conclusion that investing in postsecondary education for prisoners is one of the smartest ways to increase safety in our communities.
This becomes all the more important given the changing composition of individuals behind bars. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ latest estimates, at the end of 2017 about 56 percent of state prisoners with over a yearlong sentence were serving time for a violent offense. (It’s important to note that what constitutes a violent offense varies from state to state and, in many cases, people may have been convicted of a “violent crime” without committing an act involving physical violence.) With growing efforts to reduce the sentences of people convicted of nonviolent crimes, more focus will have to be spent on rehabilitating those incarcerated for violent crimes. Luckily, accounts similar to Dyjuan’s show that postsecondary education is effective in transforming the skill sets and mindsets of all individuals, regardless of why they’re serving time.
Some may hesitate to restore incarcerated individuals’ access to postsecondary education given how difficult it may be for their own children or relatives to obtain a higher education. But those individuals should consider the following:
First, the incarcerated would have to meet the same eligibility requirements for Pell Grants as traditional students. Only the most impoverished individuals can access these grants; incarcerated students with personal or familial financial means would not qualify.
Second, failing to invest in postsecondary education for prisoners means a lost opportunity to save taxpayer dollars at a time when state and local budgets are reeling from lost revenue due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Incarcerating someone usually costs tens of thousands of dollars a year. If Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners was reinstated, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, the savings to states is estimated to be approximately $365.8 million per year in incarceration costs alone. This is likely an underestimate, since it does not include other direct and indirect costs of crime or potential benefits of educating prisoners, such as increased economic output.
This is forfeited money that could otherwise be available for investing in other taxpayer priorities. A 2016 brief by the Department of Education found that while per capita spending on corrections increased by almost half from the late 1990s to the early 2010s, the amount of state and local postsecondary education funding per full-time student plummeted.
On account of the potential cost-savings and public safety benefits, it is clear that federal policymakers of both parties should support reinstating Pell Grants. State policymakers, too, should look for ways to expand educational offerings within state and local correctional systems.
Luckily, lawmakers are beginning to introduce legislation to support these goals. A repeal of the Pell Grant ban was included in an appropriations “minibus” bill passed out of the House at the end of July; it currently is waiting for action by the Senate. If successful, this measure promises a new era of learning — and safety.
Dyjuan’s story doesn’t have to be an exception. By investing in postsecondary education, we can turn incarceration into a better tool for preventing crime and equip more individuals to become productive members of society.
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