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Untapped Potential

Untapped Potential
From whom life has taken a great deal, the women at Bedford Hills are getting much in return — in the form of education

For Aileen Baumgartner, academic director of the college program at Bedford Hills, the click came when she learned one of her students was enjoying The Faerie Queene so much she was translating each canto into rap and performing each day’s lesson back on the unit every night.

“It was just so mythological to me,” Baumgartner says, like something out of an old tale. “And everyone on the unit was captivated — the women, even the guards, just wanted more and more. And I was … seduced. It wasn’t just this group of motivated women who were learning The Faerie Queene — it was everyone.”

For Dr. Jane Maher, director of the special programs that prepare the women at Bedford Hills for college-level coursework, the click came when she started getting the notes. Like the one here, each was a cry for help.

“I want to be in college. I am slow. Please help me. My way out of this life is an education. I have to start over when I get out. Be where nobody knows me. I will have to read job ads, find an apartment, find my children.”

We’ve all experienced it. It’s that almost imperceptible sense we get when things suddenly begin to fall into place, when we suddenly realize that we’ve found the place where we belong.

Tracey Bowe, age 37, has been in Bedford Hills since 1993 — she’s not scheduled for her “first board,” that is to say her first parole board hearing until 2011 — but she remembers precisely when she felt the click.

“It was in the spring of 2004 when I realized all I needed was five more classes to graduate,” she says. Though she’d been incredibly tentative about going to school, dithering for years before she started in 1999 and then daring only to take one class per semester because, “I was apprehensive — I didn’t want to spread myself too thin,” her attitude changed 180 degrees when she got close enough to taste the associate’s degree.

“I got really excited. I went from taking one class a semester to two and going to summer school because I want to graduate in May,” Bowe says. And when she does, she may find herself at or near the top of her class — Bowe has a 3.75 GPA, earned taking tough classes like “Quantitative Reasoning,” “Great Social Thinkers” and “Contemporary America.”

Sharonica Currie knows whereof Bowe speaks. Currie is a relative short-timer — age 30, in for four-and-a-half years and going home in March — but she says she got the shock of her life when she took physics …  and aced it.

 “I got 100 on my first test,” she says, laughing, the surprise still visible on her face.

It’s as Kecia Pittman, age 40, with the unlined face and infectious laugh of a woman 15 years younger, says, “There’s untapped potential in here. There (are) Einsteins in here.”

There are around 820 women in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women; about 150, or around 18 percent, are either in the precollege or college programs. In addition:

•85 percent of the women are African American;

•75 percent are mothers; and

•60 percent of the mothers have children under the age of seven.

While it’s considered bad form to ask an inmate what her crime is, particularly at a facility like Bedford Hills where the women are serving long sentences — an average of eight and three-quarters years, says Deputy Superintendent Judith MacCalla — the stories they tell are amazingly consistent. Abuse. Neglect.

“Wrong people. Wrong choices,” says Deborah Armstrong, age 51, incarcerated nine and a half years, with 12 more to go till parole.

“Drugs,” adds Pittman. “I would say drugs are the No. 1 problem for Black women in prison.”

Pittman is tall, thin and intense — an absolute whiz with computers, say Baumgartner and MacCalla with such pride in their voices you’d think she was their own child. Pittman has been in Bedford Hills nine years — almost the entire decade of her 30s, but she says she’d never say that she’s lost the best years of her life.

“I don’t know if I’ve had better years than these,” she says.

Pittman, a native of Queens, N.Y., says she grew up “on the streets,” in and out of foster care, angry, fearful, “violent — there was only one way to fight and that was physical.” Now, Pittman says, the education she’s received at Bedford Hills has given her “new eyes” with which to see and understand her own life.

In an anthropology class, for example, she learned “if you don’t have words to say certain things in your language, then you don’t have those things in your culture. And I realized that, with my lifestyle, where I come from, my culture, in a sense my whole life was mapped out for me,” she says, struggling to find the words to explain.

“Now that I’m educated,” — indeed, Pittman was class salutatorian when she received her associate’s degree, and she’s a certified apprentice in computer repair — “it has opened up a whole new outlook for me when I think about the plans I can make, the things I can think about or create, the places I can go, the company I can keep…” Her voice trails off.

“The only thing that scares me is now I can’t blame my ignorance if I fall over. There are no more excuses,” she says.

There are numbers of research studies investigating the influence education has on incarcerated populations. There’s even a study that was performed at Bedford Hills. Published in 2001 and titled “Changing: The Impact of College in a Maximum-Security Prison,” the study’s findings were striking. Reincarceration rates were sharply reduced for the women who attended college in prison — 7.7 percent, compared to 29.9 percent for those who did not. Parole violations, similarly, were 1.1 percent for the college population, compared to 17.8 percent for the non-college population.

In addition, inmates, guards and prison officials alike offered eloquent testimony that college enhances self-esteem and makes positive changes in behavior. As Armstrong says, “When these young girls start acting up (in class), we get on them. It’s, ‘straighten up, take a semester off, take a time out — do what you have to do to get yourself in check because this is too important.’ They took the program away before — we don’t want college taken away from us again.”

Indeed, these are women from whom life has taken a great deal. The college program gives them something important back. It gives them their futures.

Currie, for example, is full of plans. She’ll be staying at a halfway house in Brooklyn when she leaves in March, and making the commute to Manhattan to finish her degree at Marymount Manhattan’s campus on the Upper East Side. Eventually, she says, she’ll be able to be reunited with her children — Elijah, age 10, and Fatima, age 7.

As for the woman who created the rap version of The Faerie Queene — Carolyn — the future is now. “She’s getting out of prison today,” Baumgartner says, her eyes misting with emotion. “I saw her in street clothes today for the first time since I’ve known her.”

The woman made the most of her time at Bedford Hills — she got a master’s degree, Baumgartner notes. And when she returns to the real world, she’ll find a job waiting for her — at Manhattanville College.

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