Reimagining identity through education in prison

Reimagining identity through education in prison

03/12/2020

At the age of 19, Dyjuan Tatro, Board Member at The Fortune Society, was serving a 14-year prison sentence when he came across a video about a transformative opportunity—the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that allows people in certain New York State prisons to pursue college education. At that moment, the idea of earning a Bachelor’s degree struck him, and he spent the next six years navigating the prison bureaucracy to transfer to Eastern Correctional Facility, where he was allowed to enroll in BPI. His decision to pursue education was the first step in reenvisioning his identity for life, both in the classroom and beyond.

“Once the opportunity [of pursuing education] is there, you have the ability to reimagine yourself,” he said. 

Coming from an underprivileged community with poor access to quality education, Dyjuan had scarce opportunities to pursue post-secondary education prior to his incarceration. For people in his community, higher education was simply not part of their reality, unlike young adults in affluent neighborhoods.

However, attending BPI courses allowed him to perceive himself as something other than the pre-destined label assigned to him by the criminal justice system. As a diligent student, Dyjuan majored in Math and wrote his senior project on applied Math and Biology focusing on modeling cancer cell proliferation. Studying math provided him with analytical thinking skills while changing his view of the world overall.

Dyjuan’s personal journey is now featured in the PBS series, College Behind Bars, directed by Lynn Novick, produced by Sarah Botstein, and executive produced by Ken Burns. The documentary series sheds light on the inherent role of education in reenvisioning oneself and lowering recidivism rates. This production displays the potential of education to establish new identities for individuals stuck in the cracks of marginalization.

“If we want [people with justice involvement] to leverage their education and degrees in the most meaningful and productive ways possible, we have to support them as they transition back into society,” Dyjuan said.

In addition to being a Board Member at Fortune, Dyjuan, who graduated from BPI in 2018, is currently BPI’s Government Affairs and Advancement Officer. He works on securing funding, advocates for the restoration of TAP financial aid and PELL grant eligibility for incarcerated students.

As a Fortune board member, he plays an integral role in shaping the future of the organization and its priorities for criminal justice advocacy. As part of the advocacy sub-committee, he’s helped promote litigation and legislation on issues such as employment and housing discrimination against people with criminal records.

Dyjuan’s journey to becoming an advocate shows how freedom can be achieved through higher education for the over two million people living behind bars. Education investment encourages individuals to not only go on to lead meaningful lives but also reimagine their identity even in the midst of confinement.

“You give someone an education and that changes their life, but the culmination of our work is not a degree,” he said. “The culmination of our work is what our students go out into the world and do with those degrees.”

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