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For One Man, Getting A Degree In Prison Was 'Like Being Released Every Day'


Inmates are among the least educated people in the U.S. But today there's renewed interest in giving them better access to higher education. A new bipartisan bill in Congress would allow incarcerated people to use federal Pell grants to pay for college. For many, an education means a chance at a new life on the outside. One Massachusetts man got that chance and made the most of it. Reporter Carrie Jung from member station WBUR brings us the story of Jose Bou.

JOSE BOU: I wasn't a bad kid. I was just very hyperactive. And, you know, I got to the point where I would rather smoke weed all day with my friends and hang out than go to school.


BOU: Some of my first crimes were, like, just going into, like, Kmart and stealing pants and a shirt because I didn't have clothes, right? And I felt embarrassed.


BOU: So I was incarcerated for drug trafficking. And I was, you know, all of 23 at the time - 20 years ago now. It's crazy to think. And, you know, I had gotten into an altercation with another gentleman and went to isolation for 30 days. But at the time, I felt like, you're not going to do this to me. I'm not going to allow you to turn me into an animal. I'm not going to allow you to turn me into, like, this ex-con, quote. So I started reading. I started learning French. And I was just supremely lucky that in the state of Massachusetts, there was this one prison where they had college - BU.


BOU: It's like being released every day. The teachers who came in were kind. They weren't scared of us. Dr. Baker, she taught us history of music. And when I got to her test, she played 30 seconds of music. And I wrote on two white, lined papers, back and forth. Both sides were full. Then I handed it to her. She was so impressed and said, I taught at Columbia. And I've never - you know, I've never seen that.

And she wrote me this beautiful letter of recommendation. And it said I was going to graduate with honors. So I was always appreciative of her seeing that. I think being in a position where people, and you included, have been telling you how bad you are for so long that - to know that's not always true gave me an energy that I took through the rest of the college career.


BOU: I ended up being valedictorian. And in the graduation, you can hug your families. You can walk around with them. You can - it was a really open time that was almost unheard of any other time besides now. It was the first time I had finished anything. You know, I had, you know, had quit relationships. I had quit on society. I quit on myself and family and - for so long that finishing this degree really changed me.

CORNISH: In 2008, Jose Bou earned a bachelor's degree from Boston University while serving a 12-year prison sentence. Today he works as a school community organizer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie began reporting from New Mexico in 2011, following environmental news, education and Native American issues. She’s worked with NPR’s Morning Edition, PRI’s The World, National Native News, and The Takeaway.