Saving New Yorkers Money By Turning on the TAP for Learning

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By Soffiyah Elijah, Executive Director, Correctional Association of New York (CA)

Currently, there is a ban in New York State  on incarcerated people receiving financial  assistance from the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to pursue higher education while in prison.  In this blog by the CA’s Executive Director Soffiyah Elijah,  she describes the myriad benefits of restoring TAP for people who are incarcerated in New York State prisons.

“When I met Tony, he had already served 26 years in prison. He grew up the youngest of eight children in his poverty stricken two-parent household. At age 13 he started smoking marijuana. By age 14 he was addicted to heroin and a high school dropout. His heroin habit became increasingly expensive, leading him to engage in petty street crime to support it. This activity escalated to unarmed robberies and then to a fatal store robbery where an off duty police officer was killed by an accomplice. At age 17, Tony was sentenced to 15-life.

New York taxpayers pay about 87% more for each person incarcerated in a state prison than other states. In 2010, New York spent over $3.5 million on prison costs, which is one of the highest costs per incarcerated person in the nation. One way to decrease our prison budget is to reduce the number of people returning to prison. People who participate in college education programs in prison are about 10-20% less likely to re-offend. Every $1 million spent on building more prisons prevents about 350 crimes, but the same amount invested in correctional education prevents more than 600 crimes.

Tony is just one example of how college education in prison helps people avoid going back after they are released. When I met him, I expected him to be bitter and confrontational – justifiably so in light of the fact that he had spent 11 years in prison beyond his minimum sentence for his first conviction. But instead of bitterness, he exhibited intellectual curiosity and a thirst for learning. You see, after a rocky beginning to his prison sentence, he found his intellectual center and realized that he loved learning. Upon passing the GED exam, he eagerly enrolled in college credit courses that could lead to a degree. One day Tony shared with me his business plan for the photography business he hoped to start upon his release from prison. It was impressive. He had given it a lot of thought and researched the various components he would need to make it successful. He was extremely proud of it and told me that he had started developing the business-plan as a result of one of his college course assignments.

Tony was really hooked on learning and took pride in every bit of knowledge he absorbed. He loved telling his siblings during their visits what he had learned and how it might help his family. He delighted in talking with his nieces and nephews about their school assignments.

Tony’s determination to get his Bachelor’s degree was so strong that he twice postponed his parole hearing in order to complete his studies. In March of this year, Tony celebrated his 10th year of freedom. He also celebrated his 10th year of entrepreneurship as a freelance photographer, living out his dream and business plan. In between photography jobs, he often speaks to groups of young people in prison and out, about the virtues of learning and the importance of getting an education.

Legislators in New York State are considering a bill that would repeal a ban on incarcerated people receiving financial aid for college education through the state Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). A new report, due to be released on May 12, finds that the bill would not only reduce the number of people returning to prison and the costs related to keeping them there, but it would also have positive health impacts for the communities that formerly incarcerated people return to, as well as the individuals who receive the education, and their families.

Tony’s opportunity to acquire a college education while in prison turned him into a proud and productive contributing member of his community. Our prisons are overflowing with people like Tony who have potential. They just need the chance to learn.”

To access more information from the report, visit: www.turnonthetapny.org.

Graphic illustrations by Rosten Woo.  http://www.rostenwoo.biz

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