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1 man is determined to break the cycle and not end up back in prison

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Every year, about half a million people are released from U.S. prisons. Within three years, most of them will end up back inside. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been reporting on several men who hope to break that cycle by getting a college degree behind bars. It's an opportunity that will become more widely available next year when the federal government reopens Pell education grants to people incarcerated in federal and state prisons. For the next two days, we're going to hear from one of the students that Elissa came to know. She takes us to Claremont, Calif., for the first part of his story.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Twenty minutes ago, Daniel Duron walked out of prison for the first time in 4 1/2 years.

DANIEL DURON: I'm an emotional dude, so it kind of was, like - it was kind of overwhelming.

NADWORNY: He's still kind of in shock. Freedom hasn't really set in for the 40-year-old.

DURON: I thought, like, any minute they're going to like, oh, never mind. Go back to the building.

NIGEL BOYLE: Yeah.

DURON: And they were going to be like, never mind. You're not going home today.

NADWORNY: Waiting for him at the prison gates, not family or friends...

BOYLE: You know, you're a full-time student, and you want to kind of stay in that kind of mindset.

NADWORNY: ...But one of his college professors, Nigel Boyle.

DURON: You coming down and picking me up was, like, really inspiring for a lot of the guys there. They were like, that shows the commitment the school has to you guys.

BOYLE: Yeah. But, you know, OK, Pitzer's a small college. We do these kinds of things for our students. And you're our students now. So...

NADWORNY: They're in Boyle's beat up red minivan, headed to Pitzer's campus in Claremont, the liberal arts college where Daniel's been taking college classes for the past few years from prison.

DURON: It's my third...

BOYLE: Yeah.

DURON: ...Prison term, unfortunately.

BOYLE: So this is the third time you've been released.

DURON: Yeah.

BOYLE: So...

DURON: Unfortunately.

BOYLE: Does this feel different from the other two times?

DURON: Yeah. I mean, this whole experience I was in and my whole mindset, too - like, I'm not the same person that went in.

NADWORNY: That person that went in grew up in Fontana, Calif., about an hour from LA.

DURON: I guess crime was always present, like, from - I guess from birth, I guess. My home was like a gang hangout den.

NADWORNY: Daniel says his grandfather and his father both spent time in prison. His mother struggled with addiction. And his grandmother raised him. He recalls joining a gang when he was 12, a decision that made him feel safe, protected. He got a high school diploma, a first in his family, in a juvenile detention facility and spent much of his adulthood doing time in prison. His most recent offense was a domestic violence charge.

DURON: It's shameful to talk about the, like - I did that. I'm embarrassed by it. I didn't want to do it. I mean, I don't know. Just maybe my emotions condition at the time wasn't there. And I had issues to work through.

NADWORNY: When he looks back, he guesses he had the maturity of a 5-year-old. But then in that third stint in prison, a rare opportunity came along. He started taking college classes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right, so group one, Ron, Daniel, Joseph - if y'all can come on down and...

NADWORNY: That's where producer Lauren Migaki and I first met Daniel - in the fall of 2020 over Zoom at the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium security prison.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Daniel's raising his hand.

UNIDENTIFIED PROFESSOR #1: Yes, Daniel?

DURON: I was going to say "Bambi" (ph) was interesting from the...

NADWORNY: Daniel is taking classes in philosophy, religion and writing from Pitzer College, working his way towards a degree in organizational studies.

UNIDENTIFIED PROFESSOR #2: ...From understanding patriarchy that we should make note of here?

DURON: Yeah, I got one.

UNIDENTIFIED PROFESSOR #2: Oh, yeah. Let's hear it.

DURON: So they were incalculating (ph) patriarchal values in their kids even before...

NADWORNY: There are very few colleges that offer degrees inside prisons, since the federal government has for the last quarter century banned federal money to help pay for it. Daniel's opportunity to pursue a bachelor's degree from prison was a rare one.

DURON: I still feel, like, unworthy of, like, all this opportunity. Like, what did I do? Why me? There's thousands of people literally in prison that are waiting for the same opportunity. And it's like - it's overwhelming. Like, I'm...

NADWORNY: But more and more colleges are starting to offer college programs in prisons. Next year, in 2023, that federal ban will lift, and people like Daniel will have access to federal Pell Grants to pay for college. College classes, Daniel says, helped him, for the first time, process his trauma, his identity, his guilt.

DURON: These Pitzer courses have been, like - they really gave me a lot more perspective of the world and how to see the world and how to view the world and feel about it.

BOYLE: That makes me happy to hear that.

DURON: I mean, I think the desire and want to be, like, a decent person was always there. I just never really had the tools or, like, the opportunity to do it.

NADWORNY: The plan was to complete the degree in prison. But an early release thanks to COVID and those college credits means Daniel still has classes to finish - on the outside.

BOYLE: So this is Pitzer. That's - the president's office is in that building there.

NADWORNY: And that is why Daniel Duron finds himself, on the day he was released from prison, riding in his professor's red minivan, pulling into Pitzer's campus.

BOYLE: But my plan was just to park here now and to just go on a little walking tour inside.

NADWORNY: Daniel climbs out of Nigel's van.

DURON: It's a lot bigger than I thought.

NADWORNY: It's the first time he's stepped foot on a college campus.

DURON: Do you think I could be able to meet the professors, too, that I took classes with, like Derik Smith and all the other ones?

BOYLE: Yeah, sure.

FADEL: Daniel's shed his blue prison uniform for a new navy Pitzer sweatshirt. And he wanders around the campus, where palm trees, a pool and playing fields wrap around the whitewashed academic buildings he's only ever seen on a screen.

DURON: I picture, like, students sitting around, playing guitars sometimes? Or no?

BOYLE: Yeah. See - that's more on the Mounds.

NADWORNY: Pitzer College, through an anonymous donor, has made finishing his degree on the outside possible with free tuition and housing on campus. But as Daniel looks around, his self-doubt creeps in. He's excited but uncomfortable. What do students wear, he asks Nigel? Am I smart enough to go here?

DURON: I don't even think I write well. I'm self-conscious about my writing, man.

BOYLE: I've graded your papers, and you do write well.

NADWORNY: It's not just the crisis of confidence. Daniel, like many other people leaving prison and entering society, has a lot of challenges ahead. He'll need to stay clean and out of trouble, navigate his reentry to the free world at the same time he navigates his senior year of college in person to show himself and his community the value of college in prison. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Claremont, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.