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Blogs and Essays

Perspectives on Higher Education for the Justice-Involved

An Introduction

Klarisse Torriente, State University of New York, System Administration

In 2015 I was hired by Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison to be the Academic Coordinator of precollege and college courses at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, New York. This was my dream job; I wanted to work with folks who were currently incarcerated for personal and professional reasons. I knew from family, friends, and school how broken prisons were, yet our sentiments as a society seemed to always uphold the institution instead of dismantling or rectifying it.  Hudson Link is a nonprofit organization administered mostly by formerly incarcerated college students aimed at providing college degree programs inside New York State prisons. Seventy percent of their staff are formerly incarcerated people. This organization provides connections between experience, lessons learned, and responsibility to the community that is humanizing. I wanted to be a part of and illuminate this prolific work.

It was impossible to miss the power of education throughout my time at Greene. The students were unlike most college students I had ever encountered. The incarcerated students always asked questions, sought more information, reflected on what they learned, shared information with peers, and openly grappled with issues. Every time I entered the education building at Greene I was bombarded with questions, epiphanies, and new insights.  I felt like I was in a Robin Williams movie about genius scholars at some private campus in Connecticut. Instead, we were in a state prison in a rural region of New York.

Managing the college program at Greene reawakened feelings I had as an undergraduate. I have never been incarcerated, but I was the first in my nuclear family to earn a degree, and even before earning that degree, I felt like I was the first in my family to see myself through my own education. I always wanted to learn more about the world, and how that world developed me into the human I am today. I encountered the same feeling among my students at Greene, but theirs was much stronger.  

Access to education is liberating. We heard that repeatedly from students in interviews we conducted between late 2020 and early 2021. Formerly incarcerated students expressed their time in these programs as “life giving” in environments that often depleted human dignity, belief in themselves, and motivation. Because our students tell their stories best, we want to give them the opportunity to share their experiences. SUNY is therefore launching a series of personal essays, “Perspectives on Higher Education for the Justice-Involved,” with written experiences from a formerly incarcerated college student. Future essays will be authored by students as well as others involved in these programs, such as professors, administrators, and family. 

Every student we interviewed articulated how higher education in prison benefited them in multifaceted ways. The field of higher education in prison has typically relied on specific metrics, such as recidivism, to advocate for increased access to programming. These statistics fail to reflect the humanizing, self-actualizing, and life-giving effects that higher education in prison has on its students, both while in prison and after their release.

At SUNY we are working not only to develop and use a rich array of higher education metrics to evaluate SUNY college-in-prison programs, but also to let student voices and experiences be heard outside of the prison classrooms. When you are steeped in the world of higher education in prison it is easy to see what these programs bring to the lives of formerly and currently incarcerated New Yorkers, but their words sing their songs best. In this inaugural essay, we will hear from Adolfo Lopez, whom I met through my time at Greene. We will understand his story, his opinions, and how access to higher education in prison changed the course of his life.

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Oftentimes when we talk about the value of college-in-prison programs the conversation immediately turns to a discussion about recidivism and cost effectiveness. According to a meta-analysis conducted by the RAND Corporation, for example, people who participate in a correctional education program while incarcerated are 28 percent less likely to recidivate when compared to individuals who did not participate in a correctional education program and 12 percent more likely to find employment upon release.[i] Similarly, a basic cost analysis found that every dollar spent on correctional education saved taxpayers close to five dollars in reincarceration costs.[ii] This focus on recidivism and taxpayer dollars is understandable as an effort to generate public support for an otherwise unpopular program. However, it obscures the broader, perhaps more significant, impact these programs have on the people who participate in them. In this installment of Perspectives on Higher Education for the Justice-Involved, Amanda Serrano discusses the personal and professional rewards of participating in a college-in-prison program. Written at the time Ms. Serrano was incarcerated, it has been slightly edited to include bibliographic citations.

*****

If I hadn't attended college while in prison, I would have definitely been laying the foundation for my fourth prison bid...this time when I leave prison I know for certain that it will be for the last time. I am not exiting these prison gates with just my college degree, I am leaving with a sense of purpose and confidence that I didn't have before.

An Essay

Amanda Serrano

College programs in prison are valuable because they are laying the foundation, and affording inmates the opportunity, for a positive and productive future once released. Inmates are able to recognize their potential and are encouraged to strive for a better quality of life. As Ellen Condliffe Lagemann explains in her book Liberating Minds, attending college in prison, "enhances self-esteem and self-confidence, improves peer interactions, and creates a sense of community, encourages compliance with rules and regulations, and instills hope for the future."[iii]  This is essential because, while incarcerated, the overall goals are to become rehabilitated and change the characteristics and behaviors which ultimately led to incarceration.

My life in prison has been productive due to the college in prison program. I focus  on my education rather than prison politics, and I take advantage of the opportunity to better myself. Since attending college in prison, my self-esteem and self-confidence has grown. It instilled in me a sense of hope of a successful future. I am not speaking of financial success; I am speaking of a personal success, that enables me to be a productive member of society. I agree with Brittany Austin who wrote that "being able to succeed in college elevated my self-esteem and made me feel worthy of success. Now I have dreams and goals, and I believe that no circumstance can hinder my goal."[iv] Today I too have goals and dreams that I didn't have before.

My life without college in prison consisted of self-sabotage. When I arrived  at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for my third prison bid, I was continuing on with the same behaviors which had brought me to prison each time. Those behaviors consisted of continuing to sell drugs knowing the risk involved and knowing the consequences if caught. However, I was carrying on with a learned behavior. That may sound irrational to an outsider. Yet, it is something that has always been a part of my life. As the authors of the article Doing Time Wisely explained, college in prison programs help to change "thinking patterns and learning to avoid negative behaviors to gain positive benefits. This is a long-term skill that will potentially help the women [inmates] avoid other negative outcomes."[v] If I hadn't attended college while in prison, I would have definitely been laying the foundation for my fourth prison bid.

Research also shows that "inmates who participated in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than inmates who did not.”[vi]. Also, released inmates with a higher education, especially a Bachelor’s degree, have a better chance of gaining employment. This could prevent ex-inmates from returning to illegal behaviors to gain money. The less recidivism the less crimes, meaning safer communities. And the taxpayers will save millions each year with incarcerated costs as well for public assistance for the unemployed. According to the Prison Studies Project, it’s beneficial to provide incarcerated individuals with the tools to succeed since “about 95 out of every 100 incarcerated people eventually  rejoin society.”[vii] Statistics have shown the poverty levels are reduced 3.5 times for B.A. holders. One study found that "Bachelors degree holders are 47 percent more likely to have health insurance through their jobs...and their employers contribute 74 percent more to their coverage."[viii]. Overall, taxpayers will be saving in other areas aside from incarcerated cost.

There are many individuals who are opposed to the college program in prisons. They feel that inmates should not be rewarded with a free education. I once overheard a Taconic Correctional Facility Sargent saying to one of my professors, "these inmates are ungrateful and should not be allowed free college. I pay to send my three daughters to college; I should not have to pay to send these inmates too." That was when I first realized that the correctional staff weren't all on board with the college program. This piqued my curiosity, so I asked a correctional officer in general conversation his views on the college in prison program. He said, "I don't think it is right. However, I am a realist. I feel that if it is going to give you inmates the tools to better yourselves out there in society, then I am for it. Because It will save me money in the long run" (Personal Communication). In a personal essay entitled “Sins of Omission,” Marcus Lilly wrote that, "the majority of the correctional officers treat prisoners who are pursuing an education as if they do not deserve to be in college."[ix] I agree with his statement, and have witnessed how the pendulum swings in regards to how correctional  staff views the college in prison program.

While attending college in prison, I realized how it prepared me for life post-release. Prior to college, I had no idea what my future held with me being a felon. Attending college allowed me to see that I can do whatever I put my mind to, and I have amazing professors who encourage me to do so. I have also proven to myself that I can live up to my potential and be productive in life. It laid out for me the foundation of my future, and gave me the confidence that I'll be successful. The experience of attending college in prison has definitely changed my life for the better. As Lagemann discovered when she asked inmate students "about the value of their classes, former college-in-prison students stated again and again that they learned to think more clearly and to see possibilities for themselves they had never known about or believed in before."[x]

When younger I never applied myself in school. I dropped out of high school when I was 16. Like Austin, "I could not see the point in trying to succeed when no one cared."[xi] I was pregnant by the time I was 17. While pregnant I decided to enroll in GED classes, not because anyone had encouraged me to. I guess I always knew subconsciously the importance of education. Two months before I gave birth to my daughter, I received my GED, and it was the first time in my life that I had accomplished something that was beneficial for myself.

No one in my family has a college degree. In my family, success is measured in a monetary sense. As a young woman, I followed the footsteps of my parents and various family members. The life of illegal living was glamorized, and I grew up a product of my environment. I grew up desiring to be a successful drug dealer, not a  college graduate. I had learned to make fast money with putting forth minimal effort. However, I obtained that fast money through engaging in illegal activities, which ultimately led to multiple incarcerations. My parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and myself have all been incarcerated at one time or another. Instead of obtaining an education and bettering ourselves, we were lengthening our rap sheets and receiving DIN numbers.

Today I desire to live up to my full potential and I refuse to fail. I have goals in place that were not a priority for me prior to attending college-in-prison. Since  attending college I received an honors award and the possibility of publication for a personal narrative I had written. I had never envisioned that people would find my writing worthy of any recognition; yet, because of college I know that I am worthy. I have amazing professors that encourage me to do well and I don't want to disappoint them. As Tara Westover wrote in her memoir, Educated, there comes a time when you begin to make the "choices of a changed person, a new self.”[xii] And sometimes the choices we make involves distancing ourselves from the only family we have ever had. However, there comes a point that once your mind is enlightened there is no turning back. The desire for a better quality of life supersedes all else; it's not an easy choice, but it is necessary. Just as Lilly wrote, "returning back to prison isn't a thought in my mind."[xiii] This time when I leave prison I know for certain that it will be for the last time. I am not exiting these prison gates with just my college degree, I am leaving with a sense of purpose and confidence that I didn't have before.

 

[i] Lois M. Davis, Higher Education Programs in Prison: What We Know Now and What We Should Focus On Going Forward. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019. https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE342.html; Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Lois M. Davis, and Susan Turner, “Does Providing Inmates with Education Improve Post-Release Outcomes? A Meta-Analysis of Correctional Education Programs in the United States,” Journal of Experimental Criminology 14, no. 3 (2018), 389-428, https://perma.cc/NKE4- KDFK.

[ii] Lois M. Davis et al., How Effective Is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go from Here? The

Results of a Comprehensive Evaluation (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2014), https://www.rand.

org/pubs/research_reports/RR564.html.

[iii] Ellen Condliffe Lagemann. Liberating Minds: The Case for College In Prison. (New York: The New Press, 2016), 73.

[iv] Brittany Austin. “The Value of Prison Education: A View from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.” https://twotwoone.nyc/the-value-of-prison-education-a-view-from-bedford-hills/

[v] Jillian Baranger, Danielle Rousseau, Mary Ellen Mastrorilli, James Matesanz. "Doing Time Wisely: The Social and Personal Benefits of Higher Education in Prison,” The Prison Journal, 98, no. 4 (2018): 502.

[vi] Lois M. Davis et al., How Effective Is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go from Here? The

Results of a Comprehensive Evaluation (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2014), https://www.rand.

org/pubs/research_reports/RR564.html.

[vii] Why Prison Education? The Prison Education Project. https://prisonstudiesproject.org/why-prison-education-programs/

[viii] Associations of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “How does a college degree improve graduates’ employment and earnings potential?” https://www.aplu.org/our-work/college-costs-tuition-and-financial-aid/publicuvalues/employment-earnings.html.

[ix] Marcus Lilly. “Sins of Omission.” In Education for Liberation: The Politics of Promise and Reform Inside and Beyond America's Prisons, edited by Gerard Robinson and Elizabeth English Smith, 154, New York: Roman and Littlefield.

[x] Lagemann. Liberating Minds, 24.

[xi] Austin. “The Value of Prison Education.”

[xii] Tara Westover. Educated: A Memoir. (Harper Collins Publisheds), 156.

[xiii] Lilly. “sins of Omission,” 156

 

*****

 

 

I felt loss. I felt frightened, but mostly I was aware of the fact that I was “less than”...[incarceration] relinquished me of any remaining breath...Higher education in prison was my ventilator...I felt the knowledge I was gaining, and it began to pump my lungs.

An Essay

Adolfo Lopez, Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood

I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1992. The son of a Puerto-Rican man deeply entrenched in the gang lifestyle, and a white woman with a myriad of issues. Adverse childhood experiences mounted quickly after birth.

Nevertheless, I stayed out of serious trouble until I was 17. I was always getting into trouble at school and always fighting. However, I was serious about school because it was the only way I could play sports. Sports gave me the purpose I otherwise could not find within myself to succeed in school. And I did. I was routinely placed in Advanced Placement and Honors classes. I kept my grades up so I could wrestle. I knew if I didn’t, there was zero chance my father would drive me to the boxing gym after school. These high contact, combative sports were the only places where I felt any solace. I lost myself in the pain.

As I grew older my father decided to move us out of Brooklyn. He yearned to offer us an upbringing that hadn’t been available to him. While his intentions were true, noble even, it was tough moving to rural Greene County, NY, where I was one of maybe five children of color in the entire school. I struggled a lot and often. This was around the same time my mother was no longer in the picture, and with my father working all the time, I took to the streets to find that sense of family. Shortly after, I was initiated into the Bloods.

My gang activity while I was still in high-school was mostly just hanging out, smoking, drinking and fighting. Everyone knew I was wrestling and an aspiring young boxer, and it was respected. However, that would all change following high-school. Without the incentive of playing sports, I quickly became disinterested in school. With no clear path, direction or guidance I embedded myself further into the gang lifestyle. I began selling guns and committing burglaries and robberies.

This increased illicit activity came to a head in November of 2010. In late October I was shot at by rival gang members. In an act of retaliation (or so I thought), M-Dot (the older man who had brought me into the Bloods) planned a home-invasion robbery against a rival gang member. We knew he had a lot of guns as well as a safe with money in his house, so we quickly went to work planning.

On the night of November 16, 2010. M-Dot, Slice, and I headed to the home. We kicked in the front door. Tied up everyone who was in the home and assaulted the man who was in the rival gang. We loaded up our gray Monte Carlo with the stolen guns and the safe and took off.

On the night of November 18, 2010, I was working my usual shift at Price Chopper when my cell phone began blowing up.

Johnny O: "What did you guys do?"

Caitlin: "Jazzy is being weird, and Dom is going to stab him."

Rachel: "Adolfo, answer me."

I soon learned that my people were in an eight hour standoff with the local SWAT team. They were assumed to be armed and dangerous because the police thought the guns were in the apartment (they weren’t). As soon as I saw this standoff blanketed across the news, I decided to go on the run.

My valiant effort at being a fugitive lasted less than 24 hours. In the early morning I received a text from Slice. He had been my best friend since I was seven years old, so I didn’t think he would rat me out. I answered his text and fell back asleep. I woke up hours later to the detectives knocking on the door to the ranch house I was hiding in. This was November 18, 2010. I would not see the free world again until May 16, 2016.

*****

In the first two years of my incarceration I fought my case and bounced around between adolescent facilities and county jails. I didn’t stay anywhere for long. The media does a good job of painting the narrative of violence surrounding one's transition from freedom into jail. Violence almost becomes expected behavior. I quickly fed into the narrative that I had to be the "biggest, baddest, and the toughest". Violence against others was an everyday occurrence. During the first two years of my incarceration, I was arrested for two additional violent felonies. In many ways, I was the prototypical prisoner, one became increasingly problematic within the carceral system.

This began to change in the Spring of 2012. I was involved with an assault on a correctional officer. I was working the laundry at Downstate Correctional Facility, when the block officer took it upon himself to throw an entire bag of dirty laundry into my face. I immediately started to fight with him for maybe 45 seconds before the entire cellblock was rushed by ten or more officers. After restraining and handcuffing me, the officers beat me for another ten minutes or so while I was cuffed, making sure to mix in a heavy dose of pepper spray. I was soon moved to solitary confinement.

This was not my first time in solitary confinement. But it would be the defining moment behind a shift in my ideology. Solitary confinement is a beast; it’s entirely different from the day-to-day of standard incarceration. When the walls close, it’s difficult not to lose track of your humanity.

Up to this time, my father had been my biggest champion. He was a guy from the streets, too. He knew how these things go. Shortly into this stay in solitary confinement, my father came for his last visit of my incarceration. He looked me in the eyes and told me, "if you keep going down this path, you may come home one day, but you will ultimately die in the streets or die in prison." These were truisms I was familiar with from a young age, however they dawned on me at that moment. Coming from my father, these words meant more than if they had come from any other person.

Upon returning to my cell, I wept like a child. I wept for my upbringing, I wept for my situation, but mostly I wept for my father. He was so determined to save his children from the rigors of the streets, and I did not want him to hold this burden of perceived failure in his life. I would not allow it. 

For the remainder of my time in solitary confinement, I read voraciously. Anything I could pick up. I went through religious texts, textbooks, fiction, non-fiction, and any magazine I could find. My entire schedule was built around: reading, working out, sleeping and building elaborate card houses with the playing cards I could procure through the box commissary. 

I was released from solitary confinement nearly a year later. I went to Greene Correctional Facility, "Gladiator School" as it was known among inmates for its ruthless reputation for violence. I knew where I was heading, but my eyes were solely on where I wanted to go.

*****

As soon as I moved to Greene, I looked into programming. When I worked in the mess hall, an older inmate told me about a program through Marist College. I immediately signed up. While the program only lasted one semester, it changed my life. I took great pride in going to class. I took even more pride in telling my family and loved ones what I was doing behind bars. This was like nothing they had ever heard from me before. Usually I only called with bad news.

I took four classes that semester and received 12 credits. Yet, before I knew it, the program was gone, and I was left to fend for myself again. College-in-prison programs can be extremely fragile, funding can be compromised, and relationships between a campus and facility can vary. For the years I was involved in the programming there was always a sense that they could end any moment. 

I continued my own personal shift, while also attempting to assist others. I began teaching GED classes to help people attain their high school equivalency.

In 2014, it was announced that Hudson Link would be offering higher education once again in Greene Correctional Facility. Hudson Link is a non-for profit organization administered by formerly incarcerated college students aimed at providing college degree programs inside New York State prisons. Seventy percent of their staff is formerly incarcerated. Their programming is holistic, providing resources during and after incarceration to mitigate the effects of a prison experience. I seized the moment. Until my release in 2016, I took every class I could.

I devoured economics. I took every class offered by Dr. Shirey, and I excelled. It was a strange thing. I had always been interested in math, yet never dove into economics. I poured through every book of literature provided to us over and over again. It gave me another perspective on the life I was living and would have to live if I wanted to exist within a capitalist society after my return from prison. 

Professor Victorio Reyes taught our poetry classes, and I was extremely thankful for these. From the time I was a kid, I had always written poetry. However, he helped me learn the nuance of different forms and the methods of writing poetry. I used my poetry to confront my emotions, and Professor Reyes’ classes helped me to breathe new life into much of the poetry I had already written and would write in the future. 

Some of my fondest memories come from Professor’s Lamar’s classes. We devoured all sorts of literature, wrote our own, and even acted out scenes of plays. I have always been passionate and proud of my writing, and these classes gave me an opportunity to hone my craft.

In Greene, college students were moved to a dormitory of mostly inmates in the college program. In theory, this made sense. If we all lived in the same dorm, we could all focus and study. That actually did occur, and it was a beautiful thing to see everyone joined on a similar journey of higher learning. However, it also opened us up to harassment and discrimination from the officers. 

I understood the jealousy from the C.O.’s. Many of them had not attended college or were footing hefty bills to send their children to college. Yet, here were people whom they hated  who were attending college for free. For every meal, we were always called last, when the food was running low. We were always released last to the Rec Yard, when the Yard and Gym capacities had already been met. Spiteful officers made us wait on the walkway for hours in the freezing cold, in the dead of winter, meticulously going through all of our books, and binders. Yet, we bore the brunt.

I am forever grateful for bearing that brunt. One of the last classes I took while I was in prison completely changed my life. I was lucky enough to be enrolled into an Introduction to Social Work class that ended only 10 days before my release. The professor was Joan Hunt. Over the course of this class, I worked my ass off. This class was different for me. I enjoyed learning about the systems that surround everyday life when you come from poor socio-economic backgrounds, the systems that affect people like myself on a daily basis.

I put my heart and soul into every paper I wrote. Professor Hunt recognized that I had a voice and a mind, that if I could learn how to harness them I could potentially make great changes in these systems. This was one of the first times in my life when someone believed in my capacity to change. When the class ended, Professor Hunt said I could come to her offices one day and work with her, as I was from the area where her organization was based. 

I was released in May of 2016. Six months later I began volunteering at Professor Hunt’s organization, The Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood, Inc (GHPN) as an AmeriCorps volunteer. The stipend was horrible, but I kept reminding myself how much Professor Hunt believed in me. It pushed me forward. I worked 40 hours a week at GHPN, bartended at nights, and took a full course load on the UAlbany campus. Over my three years volunteering with Professor Hunt, she taught and mentored me.

In the Spring of 2019, I graduated from UAlbany with my BA in Journalism. Professor Hunt designed my graduation cap, and it was adorned with clippings from the many, many essays I wrote for her class. By the Fall, Professor Hunt offered me the job of assistant director at the Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood, the same position where I work today. This work fills me with pride and joy. However, I know that this would have never been a possibility if I had not taken college courses while in prison.

*****

What is "Life Giving"? When people are born, the first breath we take fills our lungs only to be exhaled from the brunt of a slap on the bottom. In this instant, we are given life. We are given a check of approval that this thing, this newborn, is a living, breathing human being. There are no arguments or thoughts to the contrary. However, throughout life, people are impacted by systems, beliefs, legislation, and interactions that often make them feel "less than" human. This systematic categorization of "the other" is a real, tangible thing that pushes people into holes that without the proper tools, they can never escape.

I was born into a few of these dehumanizing factors. Being of Latino descent, I was aware that I was "less than" from a young age. Layer that with being from a poor socioeconomic background and these feelings of being "less than" were a consistent, compounding factor throughout my whole life.

Incarceration was not only difficult, it exacerbated every other dehumanizing factor I was born with. Since I was born, it has become increasingly unacceptable to overtly discriminate against people like me due to race and socioeconomic status. However, incarceration and a felony record have given the public other, widely acceptable grounds for discrimination. I knew this from the second I was incarcerated. People on the outside reminded me how hard it would be to find employment when I was released. Hell, people I LOVED at the time used my incarceration to dehumanize me. Add that to the pervasive oppression by corrections officers and staff within the prison industrial complex, and I could literally feel this weight on my shoulders every waking moment. 

I felt loss. I felt frightened, but mostly I was aware of the fact that I was "less than". That no matter what would happen later in my life that I would always have a blemish on my record. Similar to the brunt of a slap on the bottom as an infant, incarceration was the brunt born from myself, that relinquished me of any remaining breath. The breath of life was no longer filling my lungs, and as I moved through the days in the prison system, I was no longer alive.

*****

Higher education in prison was my ventilator. I didn’t recognize it at first. At first, I was going through the academic motions. I was trying to better myself, but I had not fully begun to grasp what higher education could mean for me and my life post-incarceration. It began to click the more I committed myself to the material. I remember devouring every economics book I could get my hands on. The "Economics of Crime" by Harold Winter opened up my eyes to a lot. I remember pouring my heart and soul into works of fiction, thesis papers, and essays because I FELT them. I felt the knowledge I was gaining, and it began to pump my lungs.

When I think of it now, higher education did much more than just educate me. It opened my eyes to the world around me.

 

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