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Can higher ed keep inmates from returning to prison after release?

The phrase “school to prison pipeline” refers to the link between spending time in failing schools and landing time behind bars. A pilot program aims to rewrite that saying by creating a “prison to college” pipeline. Special correspondent for education John Merrow reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Today, the secretary of education and the attorney general of the U.S. proposed a major shift in policy. After a 20-year ban, some federal and state inmates could become eligible for Pell Grant money to take college classes while behind bars.

    Our special correspondent for education, John Merrow, reports on an earlier pilot program to create a Prison to College Pipeline.

    CRAIG COSTON, Prison to College Participant: Well, I have been in prison since I was 16. I'm 34 now.

    WILL TERRY, Prison to College Participant: I have been locked up five years. I have been in this jail three years.

    DOMINGO BORGES, Prison to College Participant: I have spent 21 years in prison. I was arrested at the age of 17.

    ROWLAND DAVIS, Prison to College Participant: I have been incarcerated 21 years now. I'm 39 years old.

  • DOMINGO BORGES:

    I'm in jail for murder.

  • WILL TERRY:

    Two of them drug sales and a burglary charge.

  • ROWLAND DAVIS:

    For homicide.

  • CRAIG COSTON:

    Taking someone's life.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Many people would say, hey, they did the crime, so let them do the time.

    But this woman believes that, if prisoners are going to change their ways, they need an education.

    BAZ DREISINGER, Founder, Prison to College Pipeline: We see education as being integral to the reentry process.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    And so these men are studying Shakespeare.

    ERIN KAPLAN, Teacher, Prison to College Pipeline: Were you able to see some of these themes, motifs, and symbols?

  • MAN:

    Yes.

  • ERIN KAPLAN:

    OK. Good.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Today, they're analyzing "Othello" in Erin Kaplan's introductory English class.

  • ROWLAND DAVIS:

    The fact that Othello's a foreigner and the fact that he's in a higher office, and has a higher-prestige wife makes him want to do this because he feels that he should have all of this.

  • MAN:

    I took it as when he — when the duke made that statement, what he was saying, because they kept describing Othello, especially Iago, and him as a Moor, as being evil, black is devilish, as you know, this thick-lipped person and so on and so forth.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    These 12 men are incarcerated at a New York state correctional facility in Otisville.

  • ERIN KAPLAN:

    "If it not be for some purpose of import, give it me again. Poor lady, she will run mad when she shall lack it.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    This class, and five others like it, are part of a pilot program called the Prison to College Pipeline. To enroll, prisoners must have finished high school, pass a reading and writing assessment, and be eligible for release within five years.

  • BAZ DREISINGER:

    We have this idea that, possibly, in the three to five years prior to release, we want to seize on the high expectations, the high hopes, the anticipations of coming home, take advantage of that hope and turn it to education.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Baz Dreisinger founded the program in the fall of 2011 with just 14 students. It's a collaboration among John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Hostos Community College, and the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. The cost, about $3,500 per student, is covered by private and public sources.

    It costs New York State about $60,000 to keep a person in prison for one year.

  • ROWLAND DAVIS:

    He's comfortable in military tactics.

  • ERIN KAPLAN:

    He's confident.

  • ROWLAND DAVIS:

    You understand?

  • ERIN KAPLAN:

    As a warrior.

  • ROWLAND DAVIS:

    Exactly.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Educational opportunities behind bars are very rare. Two-thirds of correctional facilities do not offer college courses. Where programs do exist, many are like Baz's, very small.

    Today, of the 1.6 million men and women in prison, only about 35,000 are taking college courses.

  • DOMINGO BORGES:

    And it could also be as far as his mentality, his morals and principles, the fact that he's a general within the army.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    For many, this is their first college class.

  • DOMINGO BORGES:

    I never actually had the opportunity to take college. I consider myself a good student, always did.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    But it's not their first time in prison.

  • WILL TERRY:

    I went out and came — committed a crime and came back.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Will Terry's experience is typical; 55 percent of prisoners end up back behind bars within five years of their release.

  • DOMINGO BORGES:

    And the doubt came from somebody else.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    The program gives prisoners the opportunity to develop new identities as students.

  • DOMINGO BORGES:

    I have been out of school for a very long time, so becoming a student again is — it has really been quite a ride, but I enjoy it. I like the challenge. It gives you a self-worth that is unspeakable. It's very nice.

  • BAZ DREISINGER:

    The students want to be edited. They want to be taught. They want to double the length of the readings. They want you to critique their papers 10 times over. Part of it is that you have been in an intellectual void for so long, that you're hungry for this knowledge, and the other part of it is that the stakes are very high, as they see it.

    They know that they're redefining themselves via education and they take it really seriously.

  • MAN:

    It's in Act I, Scene 3 of 781.

  • ERIN KAPLAN:

    What line?

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Success inside means opportunity outside. Students who do well are guaranteed admission into one the 18 colleges that make up the CUNY system.

  • BAZ DREISINGER:

    I like to describe the Prison to College Pipeline as a college and reentry program and a college-as-reentry program. So the program starts inside and completes outside, and I think one of the reasons why that's so powerful is that you benefit from getting some college education inside, but you also benefit from having a real campus experience and being in a college when you come out.

  • WILL TERRY:

    I know how much a support system is important to be able to be afforded an opportunity to go somewhere and meet with people that we already established relationships with, like Baz. They're not just saying get the hell out. We actually have people that's out there rooting for us.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    But providing prisoners with college opportunities is not a popular idea.

    GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D), New York: We don't we teach college in prison?

  • JOHN MERROW:

    New York Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a plan to publicly fund college programs in 10 state prisons. It faced opposition from both parties and was quickly shot down.

    Research indicates that prisoners who participate in correctional post-secondary education programs are 51 percent less likely to be reincarcerated. It's too soon to know if this program will be successful, because only 36 men have participated.

  • BAZ DREISINGER:

    It's hard to talk about numbers and percentages, because the program is so small and we just started.

  • JOHN MERROW:

    Seven of these 12 students have been released, and six are already enrolled in college or are applying for admission. Only one is back in prison.

    Reporting for the PBS NewsHour, I'm John Merrow in Otisville, New York.

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