graduation mortarboards

Gary Miller

In 2001, I was one of over 70,000 people in what was then called the New York State Department of Correctional Services. This was six years after the 1994 Crime Bill ended Pell Grant eligibility for people in prison. One year later, New York followed suit, ending the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for incarcerated students.

Before the federal ban, 772 programs were operating in 1,287 correctional facilities across the nation. By 1997 it is estimated that just eight college-in-prison programs existed.

After a series of transfers, I was lucky enough to land in a facility that had college-in-prison programming. The difference in experience between those two worlds is profound. One cradled hopelessness by nurturing darkness through loneliness and idle time while the other created purpose and community through education and self-reflection.

Twenty-five years later, New York is considering bringing back TAP for people in prison. After all this time, the evidence still shows offering college in prisons reduces recidivism, saves taxpayer money and makes communities safer. Even political polar opposites like Van Jones and Newt Gingrich support these programs.

With 46,000 people locked up in 54 prisons and a budget of over $3.2 billion in fiscal year 2018 alone, New York’s prison system is clearly bloated. New York’s overall recidivism rate is 40 percent. However, college-in-prison programs, like the Bard Prison Initiative and Hudson Link, have less than 3 percent of their participants recidivate.

It costs over $69,000 per year to incarcerate one person in New York State while it costs only $9,000 per year for a person to attend the Bard Prison Initiative. Compare a $69,000 investment annually with a 40 percent failure rate to a $9,000 investment annually with a 97 percent success rate and it becomes painfully clear that TAP funding is an effective solution to reforming the criminal justice system in New York State.

Look at it this way. Each year, 35 percent of the state prison population is people who have been reincarcerated, which comes at a $1 billion cost for New York taxpayers. That is more than the $917 million New York gave out in TAP aide between 2016-2017. Imagine what New York would look like if we reduced those costs through in-prison education and reinvested the $1 billion saved into expanding aid to students, developing programs to strengthen families and improving schools?

I have no doubt that without the college education I received on the inside, I would have been destined to repeat the cycle of incarceration that continues to plague the criminal justice system. My degree was and continues to be my ticket to a new and better life. However, education is not only transformative for the recipient but creates a ripple effect through families and communities. Restoring TAP funding for incarcerated people has the power to change the narrative for thousands, if not millions of New Yorkers.

As we enter into a new era of criminal justice reform, New York has the opportunity to join other states in reversing these antiquated policies. While we cannot undo the harms of the past, we can work toward a better future that promotes hope, integrity and redemption. Now is the time for the New York State Legislature to redeem its mistakes. TAP restoration has been referred to the Senate and Assembly Higher Education Committees. I call on Assembly Chairwoman Deborah Glick (D-66) and Senate Chairwoman Toby Ann Stavisky (D-16) to bring it to a vote in their respective committees.

Now is the time to turn on the TAP.

George Chochos is the Assistant Director of Program Management at Georgetown University. A native New Yorker currently residing in the DC metro area, he is also a prison reform advocate whose inspirational journey has been featured on NPR, the Harvard Political Review and New Haven Register. He is a member of the Turn on the TAP campaign.