Ronald Day, Associate Vice President at The Fortune Society

Helping Communities Break The Cycle And Regain Their Power

Sunday, May 3, 2015

I dropped out of high school in the 9th grade. A substantial number of teenagers in my poor community dropped out, too. Despite our limited knowledge of educational standards, we knew that the schools in our community were low-quality. It became evident that the educational system placed limited value on the students in my community. In my nine years of primary school, I can only recall one teacher who made an impact in my life. This is not uncommon for youth living in low-income communities. Students sense the lack of value placed on them; when they are not taken seriously, they often fail to take their education seriously.

Children who have a history of poverty, trauma, and other family and social problems take these problems with them to school. These challenges can lead to children misbehaving at school, but instead of providing appropriate resources, the schools often respond with harsh discipline, such as zero-tolerance policies. Because the root issues are not addressed, the behavioral problems continue, and the children are increasingly funneled into the juvenile and criminal-justice systems — the school-to-prison pipeline.

Many of the communities in New York that have limited educational and economic opportunities also have higher incarceration rates. The system takes disenfranchised students and pipes them into the prisons. Then the prisons release them back to the same disenfranchised communities. When people re-enter their communities, they face even greater challenges in securing basic needs, such as housing, employment, and access to other resources needed to survive and thrive. The cycle can continue from the community back to the prisons again when people have such limited opportunities for success.

This cycle of incarceration can leave communities with already limited resources even more strained. In the aftermath, there are fractured families, a lack of social cohesion, and disorganized communities. Children with an incarcerated parent experience higher levels of stress and strain, as do their remaining family members. These children can then act out, the schools discipline them, and the cycle continues.

One way to break this vicious cycle is to reinstate tuition assistance for college education in prison. When I ended up there, serving a sentence of 15-45 years, I looked around and saw a sea of despair. In that place of hopelessness, college offered a ray of hope. Until that point, I had not envisioned myself as a college student, but I benefitted tremendously from the college experience. Though not an easy road, taking this opportunity yielded many positive outcomes.

Attending college allowed me to think outside the “inmate” box, as people are consigned to, and see myself as a student. Moreover, having access to college helped instill in me a sense of civic duty and community responsibility. As the saying goes, “to whom much is given, much is expected.” I became determined to pass on to others the value of education.

In addition to changing my perception of my role in society, college also increased the chances that I would be gainfully employed with a livable wage. And what began in prison continues to this day, as I pursue my doctorate in criminal justice, serve as an adjunct lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, all while holding down a full-time job.

Unfortunately, it has become more difficult for people in prison to participate in college education programs due to the removal of Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) funding. TAP was a need-based financial aid program for New Yorkers. However, legislators in New York State are considering a bill that would repeal the ban on TAP funding for incarcerated people. This is an opportunity to revise a policy that has proven counterproductive.

A new report, due to be released on May 12, finds that people who receive college education while in prison are less likely to return to prison, and more likely to contribute to their communities upon their release. They are more likely to gain employment, and more likely to encourage their children and others in the community to obtain an education.

Turning on the TAP and reinstating tuition assistance for people in New York prisons can offer the opportunity for communities to break the cycle of poor education, prison, and crime, and become more socially organized. As Malcolm X once said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” By providing people in prison with the opportunity to increase their education, we are affirming individual potential and investing in an effort demonstrated to increase public safety, while simultaneously ameliorating the lives of individuals and families.

To access the full report, visit http://turnonthetapny.org/ on May 12.

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