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Charles Greene, 41, practically leapt into the College Initiative office. “Three A’s, an A-minus, and a B plus!” he said to anyone within listening range. He just completed a semester studying human services at New York City College of Technology. It’s hard to believe that just a year ago, he was doing time at Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York, for a drug-related felony.

Greene is one of the 168 students enrolled in a college or university through The College Initiative, a project of John Jay College of Criminal Justice that serves as a conduit for formerly incarcerated people who want higher education. Since its inception in 2002, the program has reached out to men and women in 77 federal and state prisons in New York, offering them new hope for success after prison.

“Studenthood provides an important anchor and goes a long way in helping that person face some of the difficult challenges during reentry,” said Benay Rubenstein, director of the College Initiative.

Efforts to educate prisoners got a boost in the 1970s, when post-secondary schools nationwide developed educational programs in prisons with the support of the federal Pell Grant, allowing incarcerated people to earn various degrees. The very first college program in a New York State prison was in the Greenhaven Correctional Facility through Dutchess County Community College in Poughkeepsie, New York. “It really came from a desire from the prisoners themselves,” recalled Rubenstein, who helped launch a college program through Marist College soon after.

The results have been impressive: In a 2000 study conducted over three years, New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) reported that roughly 30 percent of women who didn’t attend college while in prison were re-incarcerated, compared to 8 percent of women who did attend college.

Despite such evidence, federal funding for many prisoner college programs was eliminated by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act over a decade ago. More than 350 college programs established in prisons nationwide were shut down. New York followed suit and pulled state funds. Only a handful of college programs remain in New York prisons, including satellite programs of Bard College, Marymount Manhattan College, and Nyack College.

The College Initiative was created by Episcopal Social Services to plug that gap. If most people couldn’t attend college while in prison, its founders figured, at least they should be able to enroll upon release. The Initiative was recently absorbed by the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay. “It was a very natural way to harness the resources of this college to address this issue with such national importance,” said Debbie Mukamal, director of the Institute.

Staffers at the Initiative have interacted with 3,364 state prisoners – of the 63,751 in 70 facilities managed by DOCS – since 2002, and 467 of their correspondents have applied to college. This spring, the College Initiative had 167 of its students enrolled in 27 different colleges and universities in New York. Of the group, 75 are working toward an associate’s degree, 84 toward a bachelor’s, and eight toward a graduate degree.

The Initiative starts with an optional preparatory program called “Bridge to College,” which meets three nights a week, helping students, many of whom haven’t been to school in years, brush up on their verbal and math skills.

The “Bridge” program helped one student, Rashida, make the transition to study mode after a three-year sentence for gang-related weapons possession. She had a perfect attendance record for last fall’s prep course, and passed her remedial courses at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) with flying colors this spring.

Most students attend City University of New York (CUNY) schools, particularly BMCC and the College of Technology. About 40 percent of the students seek degrees in the human services field, which includes social work. Others study business or computers, for example. Since 2002, 16 students have graduated from college, and the staff expects that number to climb next year.

To help them make it, the Initiative takes on thorny financial issues. According to the U.S. Department of Education, students convicted on felony drug charges are ineligible for federal aid for one to two years. By the time they get out, however, most students are past that window. The College Initiative helps them fill out their applications for federal and other financial aid.

The Initiative also tries to address participants’ non-academic needs. Nancy, who was recently released from a four-year sentence at Albion Correctional Facility in upstate New York, has been struggling to attend LaGuardia Community College while raising her two young daughters in the Bronx. Going to the library added to her load, so the staff raised money to buy her a computer with Internet access for her home.

City Limits recently visited the Initiative’s new offices at 57th Street and 11th Avenue, and saw several students come in seeking help. Jose Santiago, 31, was one of them. Just a few days out of Queensborough Correctional Facility, the final stop for most prisoners before release, he wanted to enroll in college.

During his four years and three months in prison for drug possession, Santiago made friends with a guard who photocopied an entire biology textbook for him from the library. He learned it cover to cover. He plans to study biology and history at Hunter College beginning in the fall. When leaving the office one staff member commented how it’s good to see him out of prison. “I plan to keep it that way,” he said.

Names changed at students’ request.

-J. Edward Mendez

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