I don’t think luck should have any role in whether or not people in prison have access to education.
by Dirk Van Velzen, #LwC2019
August 31, 2019
I am the Founder and Executive Director of the Prison Scholar Fund (PSF), a not-for-profit organization that provides the support and resources for people in prison to access higher education. It’s not easy to raise money for prisoner education because there’s so much stigma to overcome. But it’s incredibly important. Eventually we want to have enough data and stories to be able to move the needle In Congress and bring back the Pell Grants for all the incarcerated people in America. The federal Pell Grants were taken away from people in prison in the 1994 Crime Bill passed in the midst of the war on drugs, and there’s been a huge void in prisoner education programs ever since.
The reason education is so important is that 98 percent of prisoners return to society, and education correlates strongly with reduced recidivism. Overall, there’s a 68 percent recidivism rate within the first three years after release. You’re going right back to the old life unless there’s some kind of program to help you reinvent yourself. The idea that you can lock people in a cage for ten years and think that when they get out they’re going be in better shape is ridiculous. Without programs you’re basically sitting in prison being punished and watching TV. That doesn’t help change people’s life outcomes. So far only 4% of the released students we supported have been reincarcerated.
When I was went into prison I came to the same conclusion a lot of people do: I have all this time on my hands, so hey, I’ll just go to school. That’s when I found out the Pell Grants had been taken away. I was lucky; I had a dad with a checkbook. Because I had a dad who could pay the tuition, I went to Penn State and earned two degrees. My life took a dramatic turn for the better because I had access to education. But luck should have zero role in whether or not people in prison have the opportunity to reinvent themselves. So in 2006, while I was still incarcerated, I started the Prison Scholar Fund, and when I got out in 2015, I continued the work. I feel really passionate about giving the opportunity I had to everybody else.
Doing this work is exciting but also frustrating. Last year I went to Congress to talk to some Senators about bringing back the Pell Grants. Some were optimistic about bringing it back, but others said there’s no way. It’s just amazing the way we treat people in America, especially those who are incarcerated. I recently met with Marc Mauer, the Executive Director of the Sentencing Project in D.C. and he said it’s taken him more than thirty years to finally see some movement. It’s a slow, gradual process, but if we weren’t pushing it, nobody else would.I’m excited about seeing more of Leading with Conviction. It’s great to connect with a lot of people in the same space who are going through similar challenges, and the people running the leadership development program are really amazing.
Dirk Van Velzen graduated from the Nonprofit Management program at the University of Washington and won first place in the Social Venture Partners Fast Pitch business plan competition. He was admitted to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Executive Program in Social Entrepreneurship and is a member of the inaugural cohort of John Legend’s “Unlocked Futures” accelerator program.