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Making Education Accessible In and After Prison

HAYLEY ZHAO, HOST: When the New York State budget passed this month, some education advocates celebrated. The budget increased funding for CUNY and SUNY, as well as financial support for students through the Tuition Assistance Program, also known as TAP. But as Karen Maniraho reports, one group of prospective students is specifically excluded from this support: prison inmates.

KAREN MANIRAHO, BYLINE: Darnell Epps is talking on Zoom from his apartment in Ithaca. At 41, he’ll be moving his family to New Haven and starting Yale Law School.

EPPS: I'm looking to move to Connecticut and jump into the 1L year with all the students over there which is gonna be intense. Hold on one sec. Kids in the background, just being kids. Like I was.

MANIRAHO: It’s been a long road to Yale. When Darnell was 20 years old, he and his brother were involved in a fight in which one person lost their life. Darnell was sent to Five Points Correctional Facility.

EPPS: It was my first felony conviction, first time going to state prison. And you know I didn't really know what to expect.

MANIRAHO: His first year in prison Darnell completed his GED. Then with the help of a private grant, he began taking college classes. Relying on limited funding, it took him eight years to complete his associates degree, just before he was released from prison in 2020. Then, he applied to Yale.

Research shows that correctional education can improve the chances that people like Darnell will not return to prison. A study by the Rand Corporation says recidivism is reduced by more than 40% compared to inmates not enrolled in educational programs. This is Max Kenner of The Bard Prison Initiative, speaking in a policy briefing to restore state funding for people in prison.

KENNER: College in prison is not exclusively some kind of radical intervention. It says the prisons are here, but we acknowledge that people within them, like ourselves, have a future that we are going to share.

MANIRAHO: The year Darnell finished his degree, there were about 45,000 inmates in New York state prisons. Only about 1600 of them were enrolled in college programs, largely due to a lack of state funding. In fact, inmates were specifically prohibited from applying for financial aid programs--TAP on the state level, and federal Pell grants. Those limits on support for prison education date back to the so-called “tough on crime” policies of the 1990s. Here's Max Kenner:

KENNER: What was so devastating about the college ban at the federal and state level in 1994 and [1995] was not the money. It didn't just say, “we believe in prison.” It said to people in prison: We believe in the prison. We believe in your conviction, your crime, your punishment. But we have no interest in your future.

MANIRAHO: In the past decade there have been a number of attempts to return funding for education in prisons--none were successful. In 2014, Governor Cuomo tried to expand funding for prison education. Some Republican lawmakers responded by saying it was a misallocation of education resources. They launched a campaign called Kids before Cons.

But this year may be different. In 2020, the Trump administration restored federal PELL Grants for incarcerated students. The Democratic super-majority in the state senate is considering lifting the ban on state education funding to inmates.

Stephanie Bazell is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at the College for Community Fellowship, a New-York based advocacy group. For Bazell, increasing funding to programs like CUNY and SUNY is important but she says our conversations around educational access still exclude people in prisons and jails and should focus on equity.

BAZELL: "How do we offer people inside the privilege of education?" That's the wrong question. It’s how do you justify their exclusion from education, because education is a right.

MANIRAHO: For advocates of college-in-prison programs, the goal of restoring TAP eligibility for incarcerated students is still within reach. The bill on the New York Senate floor to repeal the ban on incarcerated students receiving financial assistance is now in committee.

Karen Maniraho, Columbia Radio News.


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