Bringing College Back to Prisons

A couple of months after Sam Hamilton was released from Fishkill correctional facility, a medium security prison in upstate New York where he spent 32 years on charges of felony and murder, he returned to the prison – this time as a civilian.

Hamilton was there to celebrate. His friends, 24 inmates at Fishkill, were graduating with degrees in organizational management from Nyack College, which they completed while serving time. These men were among the few inmates in the country who have had access to higher education over the last few years, after Bill Clinton cut funding to 350 college programs in prisons around the country in 1994, as a part of his Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Hamilton was part-way through his degree at the time. “It was devastating,” he said.

But as part of Obama’s planned overhaul of the criminal justice system, on Friday the education secretary Arne Duncan reversed Clinton’s cuts, and announced a temporary Second Chance Pell program to reintroduce the federal grant to prisoners looking to enroll in college. The experiment will last three to five years and will be open to prisoners who are eligible for release.

“America is a nation of second chances,” said Duncan at a prison in Maryland on Friday. “Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are. It can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers.” 

The US, while having less than 5% of the world’s population, houses nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population. Increased media attention on mass incarceration has exposed the flawed prison industrial complex in America, and pressured the Obama administration to address the rehabilitative aspect of the criminal justice system.

“Funding for college classes in prison should never have been taken away in the first place,” Hamilton said in response to Duncan’s statement. “It’s just common sense when you look at what works, statistically speaking.”

Indeed, research shows that higher education in prison dramatically reduces recidivism rates. While nearly three-quarters of released prisoners are back behind bars within five years of release, a seminal study by Rand, a global policy think tank, found that inmates who participated in education programs were about half as likely (43%) to end up back behind bars compared to inmates who did not.

At the Fishkill graduation ceremony, balloons floated from window bars, the graduating class of 2015 high-fived fellow inmates, adjusted their square caps, and kissed their moms and kids.

Professor Robert Ferguson of Columbia Law School addressed the men at the ceremony: “You’re better equipped than anyone else I know for work. Why? Because your education has been so hard to get.” 

It costs an average of $30,000 to keep someone in prison for a year in the US, and in New York the cost can be as high as $60,000. The Rand study concluded that every dollar spent on an inmate’s higher education means four or five dollars not spent on reincarceration further down in the assembly line of the criminal justice system.

“[Teaching college classes] in prison is the most serious crime-fighting tool I know of,” Ferguson told the Guardian. “It’s a win-win scenario.”

Prison reform advocates have been calling for the reintroduction of funding for more than a decade now. “I think it will have a huge impact on the thousands of people languishing in prison, in terms of their ability to do something productive with their time there,” said Vivian Nixon, executive director of College and Community Fellowship, a nonprofit which works to provide higher education for incarcerated women. “And it will have an even bigger impact on society.”

“This is a hard-won victory of years of counting the payments and speaking to anyone who would listen,” she said after the announcement Friday.

Prisoners with higher education degrees are 13% more likely to find a job straight out of prison than those without them, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. 

“If people are employable, then they are able to support their families,” said Soffiyah Elijah, director of the Correctional Association, an independent organization that has a government mandate to monitor prison conditions. “No policy that perpetuates poverty is ever going to sustain a society.”

The recidivism statistics, increased post-release employment opportunities and long-term individual and federal financial benefits are the tangible, quantitative outcomes of higher education on the inside. But these aren’t the only values of doing a college degree in prison. There are also personal and psychological qualitative benefits that cannot be plotted on a graph and are often overlooked. Sam Hamilton and others got a lot more out of higher education than simply avoiding a return to prison.

“I consider having got my real education in prison,” said Hamilton, who finally managed to complete his bachelor’s degree behavioral science in prison with the help of Hudson Link funding. “I worked twice as hard

“I also felt that part of it was my way of trying to motivate her to actually continue with her education,” Sam reflected. “I always tried to be a model. I had already been the model of what not to do. So I tried to give her a different lens to view me and to view life, to try to make her see that one bad decision doesn’t defy who you actually are.” 

Hamilton is currently working at a non-profit healthcare center that provides assistance to people affected by HIV and is moving into his first private apartment next week.

Every so often the alumni of several prison college programs meet in a community center near Wall Street. Gregorio Cruz, who goes by the name of Akoko, was the class joker. “I carry around all my degrees with me, in case I run out of toilet paper,” he said.

Cruz’s resume is prolific: an associates degree in applied science from Bronx Community College, a bachelor’s degree in behavioral sciences from Mercy College, an MPS from the New York Theological Seminary – all this while in prison. He came out with thirteen bags of books.

Cruz is currently trying to find work as a paralegal and has recently applied to the New York Theological Seminary to continue his education.

Andre Gates, a friend of Hamilton’s who was chatting with Cruz at the get-together, said that college classes in prison gave him his first dose of confidence. “That’s like the one thing people can hold on to in prison to give them a sense of worth,” he said. “And it’s the one thing you can hold on to to help you on the outside.”

Gates was released in September 2014 and by December of that year he was already enrolled at Lehman College, studying for a further degree in social work. He is working night shifts at a men’s shelter in the Bronx to supplement his studies.

In reaction to Obama’s plan to reintroduce Pell grants to prisoners, Gates said: “It makes me feel good to know there are lot of people who will have more opportunities like I’ve had, knowing how pivotal education is to re-entry.”


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