The letters began arriving in Baz Dreisinger’s mailbox in 2005. Dreisinger, an English professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, had written a Los Angeles Times article on so-called “jailhouse rap,” which was having a moment: Beanie Sigel and Pimp C had just released albums after being sentenced to jail time, and C-Murder recorded his album The Truest Shit I Ever Said in prison visitation rooms in Louisiana while serving time for a murder charge. As Dreisinger continued to write about hip-hop and reggae, letters came from inmates all over New York, some expressing their opinions on music, others offering their personal stories in the hopes that she might write about them.
One letter in particular invited Dreisinger to speak at an event organized by Latinos en Progreso, a group founded by inmates at Shawangunk Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Wallkill, New York. The resulting conversation among nearly 100 men, most of them people of color, Dreisinger recalls, centered on race, drifting from James Baldwin to Ralph Ellison to the phenomenon of passing.
“I could not wrap my head around how we could be warehousing away some of our best and brightest citizens,” says Dreisinger. Regardless of the reason for their incarceration, she says, “it struck me as deeply cruel and irrational” to deny the men access to education.
After Dreisinger’s visit to Shawangunk, she registered as an educational volunteer there and kept going back. When a prison superintendent questioned why John Jay, a university dedicated specifically to criminal justice, had no correctional education program, Dreisinger started one. The Prison to College Pipeline program, launched in 2011 with the help of John Jay’s Prisoner Reentry Institute, provides incarcerated students at Otisville Correctional Facility in upstate New York the opportunity to earn grant-funded associate’s degrees. Professors from both John Jay and Hostos Community College travel to the prison to conduct classes, and students earn college credits from Hostos.
The program is one of several created in the 22 years since Congress banned inmates from receiving federal Pell Grants, causing a precipitous drop in the number of prison college programs, from about 350 before the 1994 ban to just 12 by 2005. (The controversy was nodded at on the most recent season of Orange Is the New Black, where the warden’s idea to rehabilitate the women under his watch by establishing an education program at his privately run prison is shot down by his corporate bosses.) But while prison education advocates have long mourned the loss of college programs behind bars, legislators have been slower to come around. Last year, the federal Department of Education stepped in to begin expanding prison college programs, after federal policy had for two decades dismissed college courses for inmates as a waste of public funds.
In fact, there is increasing evidence that allowing inmates access to education can save taxpayer dollars. An oft-cited 2013 study by the Rand Corporation, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that every dollar invested in prison education programs yielded savings of between four and five dollars during the first three years post-release. Inmates who participated in education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prison than those who did not, and were 13 percent more likely to be employed following their release.
More than that, though, a college education has an inestimable value to those behind bars themselves. “Public safety is not just about keeping people locked up,” says 43-year-old Lumumba Woods, a formerly incarcerated student now studying at Hostos Community College. “It’s about educating people so they come out knowing things they may not have known before.”
For Dreisinger, the lack of computers, Internet, and unfettered access to books inside prisons created obvious challenges — before a freshman writing class, she had to remove metal from three-ring binders before she could distribute them to students. Still, she says, the overall rigor of classes she taught at Otisville outpaced the ones she taught on campus. She was also struck by how her students, whose lives were governed by an institution designed to strip them of autonomy, took pride in the one thing they could control: their grades.
“I’ve never had students cry over a B plus before, and that semester I did,” she recalls.
Education programs were once common in prisons: Some universities sent professors into facilities, while other prisons offered their own vocational education programs. In the early 1990s, however, following the lead of notorious conservative senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina (who in 1991 sponsored legislation introduced by Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee to bar inmates on death row or serving life without parole from Pell Grants), legislators from both parties began seeking to bar inmates from receiving federal Pell Grants. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas fumed that prisoners had “received as much as $200 million in Pell funds” (the actual number: $35 million of the program’s $6 billion budget, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office); on another occasion, Representative Timothy Holden of Pennsylvania waved a copy of the Pottstown Mercury over his head while fuming, “There is an obligation to do the best you can to give incarcerated people a chance, but certainly not from a program that has been earmarked for low-income people to educate their children.” NBC Dateline reported on students who were ineligible for Pell grants struggling to pay for college, contrasting them with crime victims unhappy that the people who had wronged them had college access.
Prison education advocates noted that inmate Pell Grants didn’t cost other students their tuition checks: The program is need-based, so anyone eligible can receive a grant. Still, amid this rhetoric, in 1994 Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which incentivized harsh penalties for low-level drug crimes that predominantly affected black and Latino men, as well as providing funding for more cops and more prisons. Less noted was the provision that barred incarcerated men and women from eligibility for Pell Grants. States followed the federal government’s lead: Incarcerated New Yorkers lost their right to the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, a grant that had been provided to about 3,500 imprisoned New York students in 1995. Private programs such as the Bard Prison Initiative cropped up to fill some of the gap, but budget constraints severely limited their scope.
The targeting of prison college programs by lawmakers had been a long time coming, according to John Dowdell, director of the Gill Center for Business and Economic Education at Ashland University and editor of the Journal of Correctional Education. “I can remember so many times where they said, ‘We understand the return on investment makes sense but we can’t go to our constituency with this,’ ” he says. ” ‘It doesn’t sell. It may be beneficial; it just is not palatable.’ ”
In 1999, five years after the crime bill, Devon Simmons was an 18-year-old senior at Norman Thomas High School in Murray Hill. A Harlem native, he’d attended schools on the Upper East Side; his mother registered him using her work address to provide him with a better education. Still, Simmons says, he was “not prepared for college in any shape, form, or fashion,” thanks to an indifferent school culture and an enrollment size that made it easy to get lost in the system. “When I went to high school it was like if you come to class, you come to class. They didn’t really emphasize the importance of college; I never took the SAT.” His high school average was about 65 percent — just high enough to graduate.
But before that could happen, Simmons was involved in an altercation in his neighborhood that led to his arrest. On December 31, 1999, he entered Coxsackie Correctional Facility on an eighteen-year sentence. Like about 41 percent of the federal and state correctional population, Simmons had no high school diploma. He remedied that by earning a GED through a prison program in 2000, but that exhausted the educational opportunities available to him.
Instead, Simmons turned to the prison library, as well as a local county library he occasionally ordered books from, though these had limited resources. He pored over nonfiction books, mostly autobiographies, before moving on to books about the law. But any books brought into the prison had to be screened on a case-by-case basis: Books about people that inmates knew personally or those with lots of maps, for example, could be suppressed for fear they might cause conflict or encourage escape plotting, according to Dreisinger.
When the Prison to College Pipeline program relocated in 2012 from Staten Island’s Arthur Kill Correctional Facility to Otisville, where Simmons had been transferred, he was immediately interested, but not particularly hopeful.
“For so many years I’ve been told ‘no,’ ” he recalls of his experience being incarcerated. “For me to believe I was going to get into this program was kind of like a wish in the sky. I couldn’t let myself be built up in order to be let down again.”
Simmons passed the CUNY admissions exam and had a successful interview with Dreisinger. Weeks later he was notified that he was one of eight inmates to be accepted to enter the associate’s degree program that year. “I got the mail, it said, ‘You’ve been accepted,’ and it was just a sigh of relief,” he says. The program offered two classes per semester, and Simmons earned credits for five before he was released on parole in 2014.
Simmons has since completed his associate’s degree at Hostos — with honors — making him the first Prison to College Pipeline student to earn a degree. He recently began classes at John Jay as a full-time student, in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He says the program also helped him repair his relationship with his family. “I wasn’t in contact with many of them, but them seeing that I was doing something while I was incarcerated had them see me in a different light, and demonstrated that I had changed,” he says.
Simmons spent long, humid days this summer traveling from his home in the Bronx to Columbia University for a screenwriting course he was taking to learn how he might one day tell his own story. In his first classes on the outside, he struggled to learn how to use now-ubiquitous technology that had remained out of reach inside prisons — email, Google Chrome, and Blackboard. (He now has a job mentoring other students who have been involved in the criminal justice system in the use of those technologies, and helping them ease into campus life.) And he has been a vocal advocate for prison education reform, even traveling to Washington, D.C., after his graduation to speak with Secretary of Education John King Jr. In their meeting, Simmons says, he put it bluntly: “You just have to give a brother a chance.”
Last year, following President Obama’s announcement of sentencing reforms and of his intention to grant early release to 6,000 nonviolent drug offenders (as of June, he has released 348), the federal Department of Education announced the launch of a pilot program that will once again allow some inmates to receive Pell Grants, despite the 1994 law. In June, the DOE announced that 67 partnering universities would enroll about 12,000 incarcerated students in over 100 correctional facilities across the country beginning this fall. Seven of the schools, including John Jay, Hostos, and LaGuardia Community College, are in New York.
The additional funding will help the Prison to College Pipeline program expand significantly. This year, the program is operating on a $415,000 budget supplied by private foundations and grants, with help from the state division of criminal justice services. This has allowed for 29 students this year, up from 17 last year. (The program received 132 applications for the 2015–2016 school year, according to program officials.) The financial aid available to inmates through the DOE pilot program will enable the Otisville operation to convert to a full degree-granting program in fall 2017, with room for at least 50 students.
At the same time, Queensboro, a minimum-security facility in Long Island City, will educate 100 students, beginning next fall, in a series of four certificate programs run by Hostos and LaGuardia in green building maintenance, computer technology, healthcare navigation, and OSHA workplace safety. In preparation, John Jay and Hostos faculty members spent all summer traveling back and forth to Otisville with paper versions of the Free Application for Federal Student Financial Aid in tow, an accommodation necessary for a community of students with no internet access.
The momentum hasn’t stopped there. Two years ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed using state money to fund education programs at ten state prisons, and was met with bipartisan outrage; Republican state senator Greg Ball was vehemently opposed, calling the initiative “Attica University.” This January, Cuomo tried again, this time volunteering $7.5 million from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office’s bank settlements that, along with private donations, would provide one thousand inmates with the chance to take college classes over the next five years.
On the federal level, the proposed Restoring Education And Learning Act would, if passed, allow Pell Grant applications from anyone who is incarcerated (excluding those serving life sentences without parole and those on death row). Congress, though, has been resistant: The REAL Act has gained little traction since it was introduced in May 2015, and days after Obama’s pilot program was announced, Chris Collins, a Republican representative from New York, introduced a “Kids Before Cons” act that would block the program.
For students like Woods, who served 23 years of a 15-year-to-life sentence before earning his release in April 2014, the expansion of prison education programs has restored more than just his right to learn — it gave him his freedom. After participating in every education, health, and work program offered at Otisville and earning his GED, he says, “I plateaued academically because there was nothing else.” He was denied parole four times before he enrolled in the Prison to College Pipeline program, where he took English, leadership, history, Africana studies, and public speaking courses.On his fifth attempt at parole, the board said yes. Today he’s a full-time student on track to earn an associate’s degree from Hostos next spring.
Dreisinger says these classes offer more than just college credits. Being allowed to freely question, even challenge, ideas in the classroom, she says, allows inmates a reprieve from an environment where safety often demands you question no one. The DOE pilot program’s name — Second Chance — is inherently a misnomer, says Dreisinger, for the mostly poor, mostly black and Latino men who arrive in prison from neighborhoods historically blighted by structural racism and educational neglect: “Most of the students in our program are filled with people who never had first chances.”
The most common, and perhaps most convincing, arguments set forth by lawmakers in favor of the pilot program are economic. New York State spent over $60,000 per inmate in 2010, the most in the country, according to a Vera Institute study; a 2013 New York City Independent Budget Office report put that cost at an even higher rate, an unprecedented nearly $168,000 per inmate. Given the Rand study’s findings that educated former inmates are less likely to return to prison, Fred Patrick, director of the Vera Institute’s Center for Sentencing and Corrections, says expanded college programs would result in savings that could be better spent on cash-strapped public services like schools, roads, or hospitals.
Dreisinger says college in prison is about more than saving money. “Clearly there’s a recidivism argument to be made, but even more deeply, access to higher education is our right,” she says. “Whether you’re in prison or not, it’s a civil rights issue.”
For Simmons, it’s also a chance to right the wrongs of the past, not just for those inside the prison system, but for those who built it. “Access to higher education is one of the remedies to reconcile the injustices that have been brought upon [communities most affected] by the criminal justice system,” he says. “An opportunity to rehabilitate while incarcerated is a start in the right direction.”