Education Behind Bars

Education Behind Bars

Marymount Manhattan College teams with volunteers to keep college hopes alive for incarcerated women

By Kendra Hamilton

BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y.
The first hint comes when you read the titles of the books on Aileen Baumgartner’s desk: Reporting Vietnam, Democracy in America, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Baumgartner’s eyes sparkle as she describes her work. “This is a rigorous program,” she says. “The women are very proud when they complete their degrees.”

And they have reason to be — for Baumgartner is not describing the course of study at some top-flight women’s college, but the college program (for which she is academic director) at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security women’s prison located in a posh suburban hamlet about 45 minutes north of New York City.

The rest of the nation may have responded to the education-vs.-incarceration debate by pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into prisons and corrections. Indeed, from 1977 to 1997, total state and local expenditures on corrections were about 2.5 times greater than all education spending during the same period, says a 2003 study by the Justice Policy Institute.

At Bedford Hills, by contrast, dedicated volunteers and enlightened officials have chosen to keep college hopes alive. For nearly a decade, they’ve kept up the struggle despite the long odds, despite the unfriendly political climate. And now the efforts appear to have paid off in the form of a powerful, new steward. In a move that virtually assures the long-term viability of the program, Marymount Manhattan College has asked for and received permission to incorporate college at Bedford Hills into its core programs. In effect, the maximum-security prison has become a satellite campus of the former girls institution that now serves a highly diverse population at its Manhattan campus.

Under the terms of the new relationship, women at Bedford Hills can continue to receive associate’s and bachelor’s and sometimes even master’s degrees both at the prison and at the college when they’re released. In addition, the college also assumes “back office” functions like registration, transcripts and academic credit and puts its considerable development resources to the all-important task of raising money to support the program.

Dr. Judson Shaver, president of Marymount Manhattan College, sees the move both as central to his school’s mission and as a social responsibility.

“It ought to be a part of the mission of public higher education to provide programs for inmates. I don’t think it should be optional — it should be obligatory,” he says. The fact that it’s not — that it was actually forbidden when federal Pell Grants and state funds were eliminated in the “get tough on crime” craze of the mid-1990s — “is a low point in our recent social history. It’s a scandal,” Shaver says.

Dr. Dawn Weber, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the college, agrees. “Every time I’m there (at Bedford Hills) I’m surrounded by students who are stopping me, wanting to talk to me, wanting to thank me,” she says. “And these are not students who are in the college program proper — these are students who are aspiring to college, students who are still working on their GEDs.

“I’m at a distance, not in the classroom. But even for me it’s impossible to miss how this program impacts women’s lives,” Weber adds.
The commitment to college at Bedford Hills has had a tangled history since 1994 —  but it’s one that’s well worth telling.

Refusing to Give Up
First of all, it’s important to note that Bedford Hills had been offering degrees for some 15 years in partnership with Mercy College, another New York institution with roots in the education of women. Then came 1994, the year of President Clinton’s landmark crime bill, which, among other “tough on crime” measures, eliminated Pell Grants for convicted felons, even though those grants represented only .06 percent of the more than $6 billion then in the program, says Dr. Jane Maher, a professor in the Nassau Community College basic writing program who also serves as director of the precollege program at Bedford Hills.

The following year, the bill created a domino effect among the states, decimating more than 350 college prison programs. The Mercy College program, suffering the double loss of Pell Grants and the state-funded Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, was another casualty.

The impact at Bedford Hills was dramatic and immediate. Use of the library fell off; interest in the GED program declined; fighting among inmates increased — and so did suicide attempts, Baumgartner says.

But then something remarkable happened, Maher says. The inmates at Bedford Hills formed a committee to ask Elaine Lord, the superintendent of Bedford Hills at the time, for permission to explore ways to keep the college alive. When Lord agreed, the inmates approached a dedicated volunteer and longtime friend of the facility, Thea Jackson, who immediately contacted her good friend, Dr. Regina Peruggi, then the president of Marymount Manhattan College.

Peruggi in turn called on a wider network of women friends, “all of whom happened to be presidents of other colleges and universities,” according to Maher. Within a year, a consortium of private institutions had formed, including Bank Street College of Education, Bard College, Berkeley College, Marymount Tarrytown, Mercy College, Pace University and Sarah Lawrence College. The colleges provided instructors for the prison, while Marymount Manhattan agreed to serve as the degree-granting institution. By fall 1996, classes were once again under way.

Of course, there was just one little wrinkle with the program. No single institution had stepped forward to administer it. Thus, volunteers once again stepped forward to create the Center for Redirection Through Education (CENTRED), the nonprofit structure that took care of all the administrative aspects of the program — from scheduling classrooms and ordering textbooks to organizing faculty from eight different institutions to the fund raising.

For five years, CENTRED was highly successful in attracting support and high-profile sponsors such as actress Glenn Close and the (Paul) Newman’s Own Foundation. But eventually, the nonprofit’s frail ship ran aground against an indisputable reality.

“One of the big challenges of a program like this is that it has no revenue stream,” explains Marymount Manhattan’s Shaver. “Almost the first thing any donor will ask when you approach them to ask for money is how the money they’ll provide will help you to become self-supporting. Let’s say you want a physical therapy program and you ask for money to build a building — the question is going to be, ‘How can you attract enough students to make this physical therapy program self-supporting?’

“Well, in the case of a prison-education program, the answer is that the program is going to depend on donors for all eternity,” Shaver explains. While the students do, in fact, pay a token tuition of $5 per semester, they can’t begin to shoulder anything close to the full per-person cost of the program. (Marymount plans to operate the program for around $150,000 a year, in contrast to CENTRED’s budget, which ballooned to $450,000). “The long and short of it (for CENTRED) was that the sources of funding began to dry up.”

But even after CENTRED was forced to fold its tent in 2002, volunteers refused to give up. They formed the Women’s Prison Educational Partnership and soldiered on from 2002 to 2004 with an all-volunteer staff.

“It was unbelievable the way they sacrificed for us,” says Kecia Pittman, 40, who was class salutatorian when she earned her associates degree and is only a few courses shy of a bachelor’s. “They won’t tell you how hard they worked, but they were working for free, and there was so much stress.”

But there are also rewards, notes Baumgartner. And now that Marymount Manhattan College is taking part of the burden off the shoulders of the staff, Baumgartner and Maher can focus on the thing that keeps them coming back: the women.

“This work is extraordinarily rewarding,” Baumgartner says.



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