Having spent 16 years behind bars, Dirk Van Velzen is used to the word “no,” however, he may have heard that word more than the average prisoner.
Van Velzen went to prison in 1999 on commercial burglary charges – and he got bored. According to his story on Prison Scholar Fund, “he quickly realized that the main ways to spend one’s time in prison were watching TV, doing push-ups, and playing pinochle.” Wanting more than this, he decided to use his time behind bars to create a new future, and for that, he needed an education.
Well, prison education programs are popular, right? How hard could that be? Van Velzen reached out for tuition support.
First, he was turned down for the Federal Pell Grant, as Congress had said “no” to prisoners having access to the Grant in 1994. Then he heard “no” from 300 churches – actually, only one said no. The rest ignored him completely. Next, he tried businesses and charitable organizations. No, no, and no again. He wrote about 600 letters seeking tuition support and was turned down by everyone.
Van Velzen’s story could have ended here. He could have easily become just another low-income, low-education prisoner that re-enters society with (if he was lucky) entry-level job skills. However, he received support in 2001 from his father, who stepped into foot his son’s college education bills.
Soon, Van Velzen turned his focus to fundraising for prisoner education programs, noting that many prisoners would make excellent business people, thanks to their experience in finance, marketing, and managing/reading people. Okay, so those skills were often directed to the drug market, which is how those prisoners wound up incarcerated in the first place, but if those skills could be honed and directed to legal pursuits, those individuals could channel their skills into viable careers.
Although he would not be released until 2015, Van Velzen laid the roots of the Prison Scholar Fund in 2002 (In 2006 his initiative received IRS 501 (c)(3) recognition.)
Again, his father was instrumental in helping his son move forward by opening bank accounts and doing the correspondence that his son could not perform from prison. With the duo working hard to help other prisoners, the Prison Scholar Fund raised nearly $60,000 and was able to grant 191 scholarships to inmates over the course of a few years, and upon release, Van Velzen continues to run the Fund and help inmates change their lives.
The Prison Scholar Fund recognizes recidivism and mass incarceration as the “problem” and education as the “solution.” The proof that this concept works is seen when the national recidivism rate of 68 percent is put against Prison Scholar Fund students’ recidivism rate of 4 percent.
Van Velzen turned a huge negative in his life into a personal positive, then continued to reach out and create positive outcomes for others. He didn’t let being incarcerated stop him, although he does recognize the role his father played in paying for his education and helping him start and run the charity. Knowing that support of this kind is nearly unheard of for offenders, Van Velzen does what he can to give inmates what he was fortunate to receive – financing, support, and education.
Although he heard “no” more than 600 times, this man turned one yes into a powerful organization that is taking America’s prison problem head-on.