About two hours miles north of Manhattan, a group of young men meet weekly to debate philosophy and discuss composition. The curriculum is like any other liberal arts course, but the classroom is quite different from what most people experience.
These classes take place behind the confines of the Otisville Correctional Facility, a medium security prison in New York where many of its inmates are serving life sentences.
Otisville was the first to implement the Prison to College Pipeline (P2CP), a partnership between the City University of New York (CUNY) and the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). Led by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Hostos Community College, the initiative selects inmates who have high school diplomas or GEDs and are eligible for release within five years to enroll as students through a process that includes assessment tests, submitting essays, and sitting down for an interview — much like the traditional college application process.
Founded in 2011, P2CP has successfully served 26 students incarcerated at Otisville and 30 students from John Jay College who sat in on monthly seminars with the Otisville students. The program boasts 12 students that have been released back into society, plus four that are enrolled at CUNY institutions (two at John Jay, one at Hostos and another at Bronx Community College) while two others have started the enrollment process. All of the men are employed and enrolled in a training program or an internship.
It’s no secret that prison education programs have been successful in crime prevention, but since the government passed a bill halting the federal financing of Pell grants to prisoners in 1994, support has been limited.
In fact, earlier this year New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo introduced a proposal in his budget to finance prison education but lawmakers opposed the plan. Since then, the governor dropped it. He need not look farther than his neighboring state of New Jersey, however, where Governor Chris Christie recently expanded the privately funded program the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons program (NJ-STEP). The initiative includes eight higher education institutions across the state offering courses to almost 500 inmates at six correctional facilities, NJ.com reports.
Elsewhere in New York, programs such as the Bard Prison Initiative — a partnership with Bard College that began in 1999 — has reported that two-thirds of the program’s alumni are employed, finishing college degrees, or enrolled in graduate schools including New York University, Columbia and Yale. The College and Community Fellowship in New York focuses on helping female inmates leaving prison finish college.
As the New York Times points out, prison education programs can go beyond preventing prison recidivism and crime prevention. A program to engage young inmates could serve as a model to educate wayward youth in troubled communities — preventing entry into the correctional system altogether.
In the meantime, P2CP continues to break barriers between the life an inmate expects and one that they can actually accomplish. The program is recruiting for Fall 2014 semester at Otisville, plus Greene and Wallkill, two other correctional facilities that will serve as potential breeding grounds for more untapped, bright minds.