Do Inmates Deserve a ‘Do Over’ After Prison?

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The guard tower at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

The guard tower at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

We can all think of a time when we’ve been given a second chance; it could have been from a friend, a family member, or even our boss. For me, getting a second chance to go to college helped me recover from addiction and kept me out of prison. A college education can be a powerful do-over for people coming out of prison. New York State should make it easier for more incarcerated people to turn their lives around with a degree, just like I did.

I grew up in a normal, middle class home until I fell into the wrong crowd as a teen. I started drinking and doing drugs and when my behavior became too much, my parents kicked me out but agreed to care for my young daughter.

I took on a series of low-wage jobs to support my addictions and was arrested a few times. I never served much time, until I was involved in a raid that landed me two to four years in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. I was also three weeks pregnant and my baby’s father had been killed in the raid.

Doing time while pregnant was eye-opening. I wasn’t on my own anymore. I was worried that something would happen to my son while I was pregnant and what our lives would be like when I got out.

I was determined to make things work after prison but the world outside was still a challenge. I struggled with alcohol abuse and because I’d never been to college, I lacked the skills for anything but low-wage work.

It wasn’t until I learned about the College & Community Fellowship that I got a real second chance. They helped me realize that it wasn’t my felony standing in my way – it was my lack of education. CCF helped me get the support I needed to apply to college and start improving my life.

Today, I am working towards a degree in social work from Lehman College and hope to pursue a master’s in social work after graduation. In my current job, I work with clients who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, and other conditions to help them get the treatment they need to also have a fair shot at improving their lives.

Second chances are critical. That’s why CCF is launching the #MyDoOver Campaign this month, to allow everyone to share times they were given a second chance to succeed. My achievements so far are living proof of the power of do-overs. I’ll always be thankful that I had another shot.

While CCF’s programs helped me, there are thousands more women in prison who won’t get the same opportunity. Because of laws preventing incarcerated students from accessing federal Pell and New York State Tuition Assistance Program grants, in-prison education programs are few and far between. Without access to education and the skills and confidence it provides, even women who try their hardest can find themselves back in prison – and many do. Nationally, around two-thirds of formerly incarcerated people reoffend within three years of their release. In contrast, only two percent of women who go through CCF’s programs recidivate.

Letting people out of prison may seem like a second chance, but it’s hardly a fair shot if they don’t also have the tools to make it. It’s time we repealed barriers to in-prison education programs, so that even people who aren’t as lucky as I am have a real chance at a do-over.

Amy Stone is a student at Lehman College, CUNY.