Pushing to get the best college education prison will allow

Wilkins on the culture the college program created:[audio:http://livesinfocus.org/files/audio/prison/education/audio01.mp3|titles= Wilkins on the culture the college program created]
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Iris Bowen and Cheryl Wilkins faced a tougher challenge than SAT tests and admission’s applications when they decided they wanted to attend college.  In 1996, Bowen and Wilkins, in their thirties at the time, were not your typical college students.  They were obtaining their college degrees while serving time in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Westchester County, New York.

The steps Bowen and Wilkins took to pursue their college degrees as former inmates were unlike those traditional students take.  In fact, inmates like them were feeling the consequences of the Higher Education Act Congress passed in 1994.  Under the bill, prisoners were denied the use of federal aid, such as Pell grants, to obtain college degrees, even though they only made up less than one percent of college students who used the money.  As a result, nearly all college programs in jails and prisons throughout the country were terminated.  In spite of this setback, a small group of women inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility began the process of re-instating a college program like the one they had before it was cut in 1995.

Bowen and Wilkins discuss balancing school with responsibilities at Bedford Hills:[audio:http://livesinfocus.org/files/audio/prison/education/audio02.mp3|titles= Wilkins on the culture the college program created]
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Bowen and Wilkins say with the help of then-prison superintendent, Elaine Lord, the group reached out to organizations and colleges throughout the state to donate the resources needed to implement a college program.  Bowen and Wilkins say the group encountered a lot of resistance from people who didn’t feel they deserved to pursue higher education because of their crimes.

In 1996, Marymount Manhattan College partnered with the women’s prison to establish the Bedford Hills College Program, completely through private funding.  The prison also got help from a dozen other colleges, which donated teaching staff, books and computers to help the students fulfill their requirements for the sociology degree, the only option for students at Bedford Hills.

Looking back, Bowen and Wilkins remember that the thought of bringing a college program back to Bedford Hills sparked so much interest that pursuing a college degree became a cool thing to do.  Because Marymount Manhattan College, like any other college, requires a high school diploma or its equivalent to enroll students, Bowen and Wilkins, both high school graduates, were among a large group of women who helped prepare their fellow inmates to pass the GED test.  Obtaining a General Equivalence Diploma would then allow prospective college students to apply to the Bedford Hills College Program.

As college students, they had to balance their responsibilities at Bedford Hills with their class requirements.  Nonetheless, they demanded high standards from themselves and of their professors.

Bowen, who started working toward a degree through Mercy College prior to the program being cut in 1995, completed her Associate’s degree through the Bedford Hills College Program.  Wilkins completed her Bachelor’s degree through the program.  When Wilkins was released in 2005, she started a Master’s program in Urban Affairs at Hunter College and completed it two years later.  She says her undergraduate experience helped shape her work ethic as a graduate student.

The former inmates now work together at the Fortune Society in New York City where they help people who have had trouble with the law in the past get into college programs.  The women say their degrees help them serve as role models to their clients and their families.

Since 1996 when the Bedford Hills College Program began, Marymount Manhattan College has granted over 100 diplomas to inmates earning Associates and/or Bachelor degrees.  Marymount Manhattan College allows students who are released from Bedford Hills before they complete their degrees to finish their requirements at its Manhattan campus.

To date, prisoners are still ineligible to use Pell grants to finance their college degrees.  In August 2008, Congress passed a bill that prevents sex offenders who live in treatment centers from getting federal aid to pay for their college education.  In spite of these restrictions, there has been a great deal of research showing the benefits of such education programs.  A 2001 study by the Correctional Education Association found that recidivism rates for people who earned college degrees in Maryland prisons were reduced by 12%, in Minnesota by 28% and Ohio by 19%.  More recently, a 2004 study by researchers at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research found that the average cost to provide a college education for inmates was $1,400 compared to the $25,000 it cost per year to incarcerate them.

While few college programs throughout the country have been re-established since they were cut as a result of the 1994 bill, Boston University, Bard College and Patten University also offer degrees to inmates in nearby jails and prisons.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: Do you think state and/or federal money should be used to educate prisoners? Does it make a difference if a prisoner seeking higher education is serving a short sentence or will never be released from prison?

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Djenny Passe-Rodriguez attends the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She is a television and radio broadcast student with a focus on health and medicine reporting. She graduates in December, 2008. Some of her work can be seen on her blog.

About Djenny Passe Rodriguez