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People leaving prison read on average at a sixth-grade level. They struggle to find and keep jobs. There are a handful of initiatives aimed at changing that narrative through college education and professional training. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on one program aimed at one of the most challenged populations in the workforce.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: I'm running late for a post-war U.S. history class. Getting past the maximum security prison patrol, two checkpoints and four rolling steel cage doors is an ordeal. When I arrive, professor Delia Mellis is discussing the history of sexual identity with 18 men dressed in green jumpsuits.
DELIA MELLIS: We didn't have a history. We didn't have history. Does that mean - is he saying by implication that history didn't exist?
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: No.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't think he's saying that. I think he's making a distinction between you know, gay acts, homosexual acts and there being a gay identity.
NOGUCHI: This is part of the Bard Prison Initiative, or BPI, a privately funded program that provides college education to more than 300 students in New York state's prison system. BPI is highly selective. It accepts 10 to 25 percent of applicants. The syllabus, requirements and professors here at Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, N.Y., are no different than at Bard College's main campus 30 miles away. BPI social studies major Glenn Rodriguez says cultural anthropology changed his perspective.
GLENN RODRIGUEZ: And we kind of dealt with the notion of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. And it shows you how we have a tendency to kind of see people as other.
NOGUCHI: At 16, Rodriguez was convicted of murder before finishing high school. Now 43, his release is in May, at which point he plans to finish his senior credits and get his master's in social work. When he isn't in class, he says he's hitting the books.
RODRIGUEZ: The weekends and Tuesdays and Thursdays, I'm, like, locked in a cell, reading and studying. And it's like it never ends. It seems like it never ends.
NOGUCHI: The Bard Prison Initiative is exceptional both in the sense that it is rare and in its academic rigor. It was born at a time when politics favored punishing instead of rehabilitating criminals. A 1994 crime law made prisoners ineligible for education grants, effectively eliminating access to college behind bars. Since then, at least two dozen college baccalaureate programs have returned in 28 states.
Max Kenner was a Bard undergraduate when he founded BPI. Last year, BPI started a pilot program offering graduates year-long professional internships with employers. Kenner says the cardinal error many people make is setting limits on what's possible for prisoners.
MAX KENNER: If we're going to provide higher education in unusual circumstances, why assume less of people? If we came in and offered something that aspired to less, attrition would be higher, and the impact would be lower.
NOGUCHI: A 2013 Rand Corporation study found college cut prison costs by increasing the odds of employment and reducing recidivism. BPI's recidivism rate, for example, is 4 percent, far lower than averages of 60 percent or higher in the first few years after release.
Experts say college in prison helps counteract challenges such as low literacy or lack of technology access. It might persuade employers who remain reluctant to hire people with violent crime records, including many BPI students. Professor Robert Tynes, who teaches African politics at Eastern Correctional, says his inmate students are highly motivated.
ROBERT TYNES: The close reading, the questions they have are so fine and well thought out that the class just takes off by itself. And it's great. It's one of the best teaching experiences I've ever had.
NOGUCHI: Two years ago, a team of BPI inmate students beat Harvard in a debate. DyJuan Tatro was on that team. Tatro is a math major with an A, A-minus grade point average who wants to become a cancer researcher. The 31-year-old has served 11 years for drug crimes and gang shootings, half of it at Eastern Correctional, which has become a desired destination among prisoners because of Bard.
Tatro has nothing of a hardened criminal look. His youthful face is framed by a manicured goatee. Inside the bare walls of prison where sounds echo everywhere, you have to lean in to hear his soft-spoken voice.
DYJUAN TATRO: You know, I wake up in the morning, and I don't say to myself, you know, I'm in prison. I try to think of it like I'm in college. You can't entirely separate the two out, but it's healthier to think about it that way. It gives you meaning, and gives you purpose.
NOGUCHI: There's a photo of Tatro bowing and embracing teammates after winning the debate. I ask him how that moment felt.
TATRO: It was just like, there's good things in the world - right? - that the possibilities are out there. It allows you to dream in a different way.
NOGUCHI: Lavar Gibson is in the first class of former BPI students interning at the Ford Foundation in New York City. He hopes to pursue a career in finance, but he says there are many family and friends who struggle to accept he is a changed and learned man.
LAVAR GIBSON: It's easy to want to keep somebody at a certain place. People do it with their children every day. And their children change, and they grow, and they become. And if you can't appreciate that change, you really can't appreciate life. That's life.
NOGUCHI: The Trump administration has called for a tougher stance against crime, but conservative scholars like Gerard Robinson at the American Enterprise Institute hope that won't come at the expense of prisoner education.
GERARD ROBINSON: The right thing to do is not only give them a second chance but to also admit the fact that many of them didn't receive a first chance at school.
NOGUCHI: Not all employers may be ready to extend that second chance to the workplace, but BPI is hoping to change that as well. It says it is expanding its internship program to include more employers next year. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.
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