Veteran Educator Leads John Jay College’s Prison Re-Entry Institute

On the first day of this fall’s English 101 class at Otisville Correctional Facility, as visiting college administrator Ann Jacobs began asking 12 prisoners about their dreams and expectations, their level of engagement wholly, suddenly shifted.

“There’s something hard about a prison door locking behind you — the consciousness you have about not breaking the rules — that creates an intensity,” Jacobs said. “Then, you’re in a classroom that looks kind of like every other classroom, but it’s not co-ed, and the students are multi-aged, and half of them are looking at me real intently and the other half are doing the things that people do when they choose to sit at the back of the room. Not talking, not asking a lot.”

Jacob’s query about personal aspirations, though, broke their silence. They desired a solid education, a job paying a life-sustaining wage, to be under the same roof with children from whom they’ve been estranged and who, perhaps, are languishing in foster care.

It was a poignant moment, said Jacobs, tapped three months ago to lead the Prisoner Re-entry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, but also a realistic one. Personal transformation is hard work for anybody, let alone the presently or formerly incarcerated. Post-prison, things can get tough for that population, which now is being released in record numbers. Before being locked down, they were, as a group, disproportionately poor, unschooled, illiterate, marginally employed. John Jay’s institute operates with those myriad difficulties in mind as 700,000 people are exiting prison annually.

For roughly 40 years, Jacobs has been helping the formerly incarcerated navigate a post-prison world. Before becoming the re-entry institute’s executive director, Jacobs helmed the Women’s Prison Association for two decades. As both a local and national advocate and reformer, she has lectured, consulted and trained others on crime, the courts, imprisonment and, as related factors, drug addiction, mental health, housing, child welfare and well-being and employment readiness, or the lack thereof. She also has been deputy director of New York City’s Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator.

“I got interested in this work while I was still in college and had an opportunity to do a number of placements in different settings, including the D.C. jail where I was helping to do a study of the educational needs of what was, at the time, a new jail,” said Jacobs, who has a University of Maryland bachelor’s degree in sociology and attended University of Baltimore Law School.

Prisoners’ background stories haven’t changed much since the early 1970s, she said. “The men who were in the D.C. jail had very low educational achievement … men with fifth-grade testing levels. It explained a lot in terms of problems they were having in the community, with structuring a living, making a livable wage. It’s no less trying now. We send people to prison, but they had a lot of problems before they got there.”

Attitudes toward crime and criminals, however, have been in full flux, Jacobs said.

During what she called the mid-1990s get-tougher-on-criminals fervor, lawmakers voted to disqualify prisoners for federal Pell grants to cover college costs. Depending on the crime — say, a conviction for dealing drugs near a school — those released from prison had to wait a certain period before they could get aid, if at all. This, despite years of research showing that the more education a convicted person receives the less likely she is to recycle through prison’s revolving door.

“This mentality of being tough on crime and not allowing for public resources to provide education while people are incarcerated became much too much the policy. In my mind, it’s vengeful and … insatiably punitive,” Jacobs said.

Private donors have filled in the gap, to some degree, financing such prison-based New York efforts as Hudson Link’s project at Sing Sing Correctional Facility and Bard College’s Bard Prison Initiative, which granted 157 degrees in 2011, offers 50 courses per semester to men and women in five state prisons and enrolls 250 students.

“There are examples like that across the country, generally run by private colleges,” Jacobs said. “You work intensively with the foundation community that funds a lot of this, and you hope the foundation support translates into a more general acceptance of this notion that funding these programs is good public policy. You try to create a critical mass of people who know why this is important and why it’s such a good investment.”

That ideal undergirded former President George W. Bush’s 2007 Second Chance Act, aimed at transforming lives and building safer communities. “It signaled an end to the kind of social philosophy that you could lock these guys up forever and throw away the key,” Jacobs said.

John Jay’s institute, Jacobs said, is situated at “the intersection of law, poverty, personal psychology … Our niche is trying to bridge the world of academic study to the world of policy-making so that we’re having a conversation across different worlds, so that the research is grounded in reality, so that research is done well and the research is applied.”

She continued: “We get a lot of queries from practitioners who are struggling with some aspect of what they’re doing and are looking to another way to think about a problem.”

John Jay President Jeremy Travis said Jacobs was selected because she was both forward-thinking and innovative. “A stellar leader in the field, she brings with her a wealth of experience that will help advance the scope and research of the Institute.”

Jacobs brings to the field an “unusual passion” and “a no-nonsense understanding of what is at stake for both the people in re-entry and the general public,” said Dr. Todd Clear, dean of Rutger’s University’s School of Criminal Justice and author of the forthcoming “The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Fall of the Great American Punishment Experiment.”

Jacobs’ credibility rests in her connections to those working in a field that is still immersed in its own learning process, Clear added. “Not enough is known about what works. Too many programs are small ma-and-pa shops who do great work but are vulnerable to environmental and fiscal pressures,” said Clear, also author of “Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Places Worse.” “The work itself is very hard and 100-percent success is not possible. Communities that people re-enter into are already hard hit by crime, the economy and political disinvestment.” 

With Columbia University Law School and the Legal Action Center, both in New York City, the institute is preparing to convene a focus group on such legal challenges as how to ensure child visitation for the incarcerated, how to clear a criminal rap sheet of errors and address the prison rights of immigrants.

The institute’s Occasional Series on Prison Re-entry spotlights related search by scholars from colleges and universities throughout the country, and convenes such forums as one that revisited the question of how and whether criminal records should determine college admissions.

The institute’s Justice Corps, with grants from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent $130 million initiative for at-risk Black men and boys — Bloomberg and financier-philanthropist George Soros each gave $30 million of their money to the effort — is setting up a third New York City site for 18 to 24-year-olds with criminal records. As part of their hoped-for turnaround, the young men are planning, budgeting and carrying renovations of sound studios, childcare centers, halfway houses and such, while also striving to get up to speed in their schooling.

This fall’s classroom of 12 at the Otisville prison is one prong in John Jay’s Prison to College Pipeline, a broader bid to heighten its own appeal as an academic destination and raise the educational and, ultimately, workforce, family and community prospects of its targeted students. The pipeline project recommits John Jay to providing college instruction inside prisons, Jacobs said.

Underwritten by private foundations, the project enrolls prisoners who are within three years of release and resolved to finish their degree work at John Jay or another of the City University of New York’s 19 campuses. “We’re also working with the larger CUNY community and the State Department of Corrections to figure out ways to do more outreach at prisons so that men and women who are currently locked up think about college in their future, and they can think about what they need to do to get there,” Jacobs said.

The 12 Otisville men range in age from 25 to 46. They are mainly Black and Hispanic, though at least one White is enrolled. The men, Jacobs added, have been locked up for as far back as 1990 or as recent as 2010, on convictions ranging from robbery to murder.

“One of the things you find when you do this work is that the outside world talks about violent and non-violent crimes as if that is the measure of the person,” Jacobs said. “But when you have real experience with people, you realize the person is not the charge and the charge is not the person. That’s not to make excuses. … Even if that was their strategy in the past, it doesn’t mean they’re still like that.”

That seems especially true for those already with extended time in prison, where they immersed themselves in the prison library, self-penitence and self–reflection, and began to view learning as an essential aspect of better living. Witnessing such change is what keeps her in the work, Jacobs said.

“In some ways I was an unlikely choice for this job. I didn’t pursue much of an academic career. I thought about grad school at times. I kept finding jobs in this field that were big enough to consume me,” Jacobs said. “I love this new job. It draws on things I did before but also creates all kinds of possibilities.”