Turning on the TAP: How Returning Access to Tuition Assistance for Incarcerated People Improves the Health of New Yorkers

Graphic illustrations by Rosten Woo. http://rostenwoo.biz/

Graphic illustrations by Rosten Woo. http://rostenwoo.biz/

| By Lili Farhang |

Today, Human Impact Partners, the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, and our partners are excited to release a report that examines an often-overlooked aspect of providing college education for people in prison. Turning on the TAP: How Returning Access to Tuition Assistance for Incarcerated People Improves the Health of New Yorkers set out to answer the question: How will providing college education to people in prison affect the health and well-being of those people, their families, and their communities?

Our conclusion is that expanding access to college education for people in New York state prisons would benefit the overall health and well-being of the communities that formerly incarcerated people return to, as well as the individuals who receive the education, and their families. And yet, despite these benefits, funding through the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) – which provides grants to low-income New York residents to help them afford college – is unavailable to people who are incarcerated.

This wasn’t always the case. Until 1994, TAP and its federal equivalent, the Pell Grant Program, helped incarcerated people in prison enroll in courses offered by public and private colleges. Despite evidence of the benefits of correctional education, as part of the “tough on crime” wave that engulfed federal, state, and local policy-making in the early to mid-1990s, Pell and TAP grant eligibility was rescinded for people in New York State prison. After such funding was eliminated, in-prison college education programs in New York almost disappeared.

Today, there are approximately 53,000 people in New York state prisons, 59% of whom have a verified high school diploma and could therefore be eligible for TAP funding if it were made available to them. Legislators in New York State are considering S975/A2870 (2015), a bill that would repeal the ban on incarcerated people receiving financial aid for college education through TAP. Should the legislation pass, people in prison would have increased access to educational resources and, ultimately, experience increased educational attainment.

Data generated through the project shows how such legislation would be good for health and health determinants:The benefits of in-prison college education mean that when students return to the community, they engage in lower rates of crime and have a higher level of civic engagement when compared to other formerly incarcerated people returning to the community.

  • College teaches critical thinking skills that help people better understand and take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. It also improves their chances of getting a job, reuniting with their families, finding their place in society, not committing new offenses, and not returning to prison.
  • Benefits of in-prison college education include improved parenting behaviors, higher family income, increased likelihood that children and family members achieve higher levels of education, and reduced likelihood that children experience behavioral problems and get involved in the criminal justice system themselves.
  • College education improves relationships and reduces conflicts, resulting in a safer prison environment.
  • In-prison college education is a cost-effective investment in reducing crime and recidivism. Every $1 million spent on building more prisons prevents about 350 crimes, but the same amount invested in correctional education prevents more than 600 crimes.

Data from existing college education programs surveyed through the project show that lack of resources is one reason that only one-third of prison applicants are accepted for college study. If tuition assistance funding was restored, existing programs would be able to enroll over 3,200 people a year.

Based on such findings, the report makes a series of recommendations to ensure that such health benefits actually accrue – foremost among these is a recommendation to restore TAP funding for incarcerated people.

The report was produced in partnership with our Advisory Committee members from the Vera Institute of Justice, the Correctional Association of New York, the Fortune Society, Syracuse University, and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Over the past few weeks, these partners have released a series of blog posts focused on the issue of college education in prison. They were written from a variety of perspectives – including about recidivism and cost savings, human rights, community impacts, college environment impacts, and health impacts. Each of these partners has a compelling case to make about the value of providing college education to people in prison and the benefits to families and communities.

Our report – which ties these perspectives together – was released at an event today in Albany, NY. Speakers included:

Visit TurnOnTheTAPNY.org for a full electronic version of the report, as well as an executive summary, and links to all of the previous blog posts of our partners. Be sure to follow #TurnOnTheTAPNY to find out more about any additional activities related to these findings.