Transforming Students’ Lives Through The Prison-to-College Pipeline.
by Andrea Dawn Clark
Sitting in one of the classrooms at Otisville Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison 79 miles northwest of Manhattan, you can easily forget that you’re in a prison. Yes, there are correctional officers on site. Yes, you have to go through gates and detectors before you enter the room. But once you’re in the classroom—with its florescent lights, chalkboards, linoleum flooring, construction-paper cutouts, and posters of famous writers covering the walls—it simply feels like a place of learning, a familiar space straight out of our collective educational memories. And that’s exactly the point of the Prisoner Reentry Institute’s (PRI) Prison-to- College Pipeline (P2CP): to create an educational space that provides higher education opportunities for individuals caught up in the criminal justice system. P2CP classes are John Jay College classes, with John Jay professors, John Jay curriculum, and John Jay credits. It gives criminal justice-involved individuals with high school diplomas or G.E.D.s, who are eligible for release within five years, access to higher education and the ability to earn college credits. The goal is that upon release, these students will use their acquired credits and support network to complete their degree, increasing their chances of academic, professional, and personal success.
“The United States has the dubious distinction of locking up the highest percentage of a country’s population, more than any other country in the world. And, a disproportionate number of the people that we lock up are people of color, particularly men of color,” says Ann Jacobs, PRI Director. “We have to make a special effort to make up for the fact that simply by virtue of where people live, how their schools were resourced, and how police and enforcement surveillance was focused, certain populations are disproportionately brought into the criminal justice system. We have to affirmatively make education available where people find themselves, so that they can build their pathway out and onto a different trajectory.”
For Jacobs, it’s a matter that extends far beyond the criminal justice-involved individual—the impact affects families, communities, and even our country’s ability to move forward. Programs like P2CP aim to fully make use of people’s talents, specifically those who have been excluded from educational opportunities and access to social networks. “Some people think that because you are doing college in prison, you have to dumb it down,” says Jacobs, “but faculty teaching in the program say that they’ve met some of the most prepared and energetic students they’ve seen in their teaching experience.” P2CP is a program that the entire John Jay community goes out of their way to support. Faculty and staff drive, or even take buses, for hours to reach Otisville, and they go through labor-intensive processes to get on-site materials approved.
The discussion in John Jay Professor Jessica Gordon-Nembhard’s Africana Studies 121 “Africana Communities” class at Otisville was as interactive and absorbing as any college-level course you’d find outside of a correctional facility. During the class, eight young men enthusiastically participated in discussions and took detailed notes as Gordon-Nembhard evaluated their homework and in-class presentations. “The experience I have with the Otisville students is exhilarating and transformative. The students keep me on my toes, continually challenging me to teach them more,” says Gordon-Nembhard. “Every time I’m in the classroom with these students, I see how they are fully developing into scholars.”
“I understand people’s misconceptions and misgivings, but a rehabilitated person is what you want for your society. Education stops you from making poor decisions.”
—Joewyn, P2CP student
—Joewyn, P2CP student
After getting their assignment to present a critique of an article on black economic development, P2CP students Joewyn and Wilbert dove into the text and even challenged their professor’s perceptions. “There’s no specific action plan with the proper steps to reach economic growth for the black community,” says Wilbert. “Exactly, look at the civil rights movement, we need to have that same fortitude for economic development,” Joewyn responds. Gordon-Nembhard smiles and says, “You know, before listening to you guys, I actually liked this article. I think the author was trying to reach a less educated group. You guys are too smart for him.” Wilbert counters with, “Well, that’s kind of your fault. You trained us.” Everyone in the class laughs and enjoys the thought of being “too smart.”
Joewyn is the first in his family to attend college. He reached the 10th grade before becoming involved in the criminal justice system at the age of 16. Joewyn says that he grew up in a poor household, and that his mother worked hard to provide for the family. “She always emphasized education as the key to success. As a kid, learning came easy for me, but I was disruptive sometimes in class. Now, I want to give something back to my mom, I want to make her proud,” says Joewyn.
One element of the program that Joewyn finds particularly rewarding is the Learning Exchange, which allows New York City campus students to join Otisville students in a monthly seminar. “It gives us a sense of normalcy. You realize they’re just students and they treat us as fellow students,” says Joewyn. “It’s a two-way street. They learn from us and we learn from them.” For the New York City campus students, “it expands their perspective, especially for students wanting to become forensic scientists, lawyers, corrections or police officers,” says Jacobs.
Being a critical thinker, Joewyn wanted to address concerns about programs like the P2CP. “I understand people’s misconceptions and misgivings, but a rehabilitated person is what you want for your society,” he says. “Education stops you from making poor decisions. It’s not just beneficial to the inmate, it’s beneficial to society.” And it’s an important point to make, seeing that 95 percent of state prisoners will be released from prison at some point.
Wilbert grew up in a household with seven women. “That led me to look for male friendship out in the neighborhood, and that led me to getting into trouble. I was getting kicked out of a lot of schools and only finished the eighth grade before I was incarcerated,” he says. After 15 years of cycling in and out of correctional facilities, Wilbert saw a flier for the P2CP. “I needed something to focus on, something to make my life better. I told myself, if I was accepted to the program, that was it, I was going to turn my life around. For me, it was a life or death situation.”
Like all P2CP students, Wilbert went through a rigorous evaluation process to enter the program, including tests, essays, and interviews, and now he’s been a P2CP student for three years and is the first student on the program’s candidate evaluation committee. “Right now, I have 51 credits. In the fall, after my release, I plan on going to John Jay and majoring in Human Services & Community Justice,” says Wilbert. “P2CP gives me a sense of accomplishment. It’s knowing what I’m going to face when I get home, and that I have a chance to change my life around.”
In the three years Wilbert’s been in the P2CP program, his family has noticed a huge transformation in him. The tone in his letters is different. The way he talks to them is different. Even the way he walks is different. “This program changed me as a person. It’s helped me humble myself, bringing me closer to my family.” Thinking about his transformation in the P2CP, Wilbert likens himself to a late-blooming plant. “They say everybody is born with a seed. It took a lot before my seed got watered, but in this program, every year, it’s just blossoming more and more.”
Joewyn and Wilbert are both within a year’s reach of “coming home”—the phrase used to describe life after being released. But what happens after they come home? “We’ve found that the people who started in the Prison-to-College Pipeline, and have been out for more than 30 days, 38 percent of them have already enrolled in college,” says Jacobs. “I think that says that the pipeline model has value and does work.” Jacobs isn’t the only one noting the program’s success. “Each time I meet these students, and gain more familiarity with the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program, I see that they are truly committed to getting their lives on track and helping others,” says New York State Assemblyman David Weprin, Chair of the Assembly Committee of Correction. “Supporting these programs is not only the right thing to do, it’s also smart policy. Investing in this type of educational programming, and alternatives to incarceration, reduces recidivism, helps create safer communities, and brings us closer to ending the cycle of incarceration plaguing communities across our state.”
Another initiative helping these students find their footing after “coming home” is PRI’s College Initiative (CI) program. This network of people are specifically focused on helping criminal justice-involved students create a strategic plan for college and beyond. “Our model starts inside, and then we have the College Initiative, which at any one time is working with over 300 students at various stages of enrolling, going to college, and getting multiple degrees,” says Jacobs. “There are academic counselors helping them to figure out their degree pathway, while at the same time providing them with a supportive peer network.” Students like Ludovic ’21, a former Otisville student and current New York City campus student, depended on CI and the whole John Jay community to guide him through the transition. “The biggest help was reconnecting with John Jay students who participated in the Learning Exchanges at Otisville,” says Ludovic. “They showed me around campus and really made me feel comfortable taking classes. Some people think that incarcerated students don’t deserve a second chance, but the Otisville students are willing to work hard, learn, and take advantage of this opportunity. They’re fully capable of living civilized lives if they’re given another chance.”