Adi Talwar

Steuben Vega now helps people coming out of prison get the job training they need. During his own stint, he found the vocational education options a poor fit for the modern workplace.

A course at Clinton Correctional prison taught him to cut and solder pipes for air conditioning systems but the lesson Steuben Vega remembers best is how to count cards.

“I got good at spades,” Vega, 45, recalls of the vocational class in HVAC systems he took while he was an inmate at the upstate New York prison. “I would win a lot in there.”

Educating prisoners in a system where nearly two-thirds of new entrants don’t have high school diplomas is an inherently difficult task in an environment that prizes safety and security above all else. Still, the daunting risks of recidivism compel New York State to equip its inmates with skills that will enable them to thrive after release.

About half the state’s roughly 50,000 inmates are forced into vocational training classes with obsolete texts, tools and methods, prisoners who’ve undergone the courses said, adding that the training’s real purpose is to keep them busy, not to prepare them for a job.

However, interviews with the formerly incarcerated show that a separate set of college degree programs do have a relative level of success given that they are offered to–as opposed to forced upon–inmates and taught by working professors.

An absence of federal money has hampered these programs, however. Private universities have stepped into the gaps, offering both their curriculum and their scholars to teach prisoners, but resources are limited and class sizes small.

Few incentives to learn

Many inmates don’t have interest in the courses they are mandated to take. Some opt out of the classes by proving that they already have technical skills. Teachers are in no way required to force their students to participate in activities. Inmates have a knack for using the time how they wish.

Vega’s air-conditioning class had about 15 other inmates, most of whom found that a deck of cards stolen out of the recreation room proved to be more entertaining than learning about cooling ducts.

“The instructor never made a big deal of us playing. He wasn’t trying to fight with these people,” he says.

Vega found that best way to get through the course was to simply show up, do the minor assignments that were asked of him and keep out of trouble. His instructor would fill out forms to verify that the job skills have been passed down.

“The forms would say that I had a number of skills, but in actuality I never learned them,” Vega says.

And once pupils like Vega are released, experts says, the methods taught in prisons are often out-of-date. “The hard skills that they’re learning during incarceration don’t suffice with the demands of the current labor market,” says Jessica Centeno, the New York State director of workforce development at the Center for Employment Opportunities, a non-profit that helps line up jobs for the recently imprisoned.

“Most of the time it is because the equipment and materials are out-of-date,” she says.

Vega says that hiring managers are often confused when the recently incarcerated show up at a job interview with certificates that show they’ve learned a skill but are unaware of current workplace practices. “When you go and meet with employers, they would look at you like ‘how long ago did you learn this? We don’t use of of these things anymore,'” he says.

A Department of Corrections and Community Supervision spokesman wrote in a statement that the vocational courses teach skills that “are current with industry standards.”

“A number of programs offer certificates of completion and for those that do not, the inmate who successfully completes the program does so with skills that are directly transferrable to outside employment,” he wrote.

College behind bars

Spending time in a vocational shop is a good way to break up the monotonous nature of prison life, said Theodore Haywood, who learned how to bend and slice sheet metal at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York.”I wanted to avoid getting in trouble,” he says. “The only way to stay out of trouble was to go into the vocational shops.” Because the training is mandatory, inmates seldom take the courses seriously and only show up for fear that they’ll be locked in their cells for an entire day as a penalty for skipping the class, he says.

But Haywood, who was imprisoned in 1975 for homicide and robbery charges, said his nearly 25 years in jail did yield a few useful things: four college degrees.

Those classes were different in that students choose to take college courses instead of being forced to learn a trade skill. University-led courses are a less available but popular option for inmates.

College classes are taught in just under half of the 54 prisons operated by the state; about 5 percent of New York state inmates are enrolled in the courses, according to the most recently available statistics from 2011. These classes are privately funded and staffed by upstate-area universities like Bard and Siena.

For Haywood, the courses gave him something to work toward, a goal that would help him after his release. It was the first time in a long time that he felt like a human, not just a number.

“It was one of the first places where someone told me I was smart,” he says, adding that unlike the vocational trainings, the college curriculums were identical to what students on campus underwent.

He went on to earn two bachelor’s degrees, one master’s and one associates; and line up a post-release job as a social worker at The Osborne Association, a prison reform group.

Carl Bernard tells of a similar transformation. At the age of 16, he was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. During the eight years and five months he spent at the Otisville Correctional Facility, a medium security prison about 80 miles north of New York City, Bernard learned the limitations of living behind bars.

“Incarceration is not going to teach you to express yourself. A lot of emotions and viewpoint are suppressed,” he says.

But when heard from a fellow incarcerated man about taking college courses in prison, he decided he wanted to try. He met with faculty members from John Jay College of Criminal Justice who were at the prison to promote an educational program that offers introductory-level college courses that get inmates on track to get a degree after release.After finding out he qualified, Bernard enrolled in the program.

As a college-bound student, Bernard attended classes taught by John Jay instructors. He read and wrote intensively, and improved his communication skills. After being released last August, Bernard, now 25,says he was able to readapt to freedom with relative ease, thanks to the network of people he met through his studies.

“I was put in a position where I able to do certain things, get jobs, because of professors that were there for me, that respected my work ethic,” Bernard says.

At the moment, he splits time between two jobs. He spends few hours a day at a Blink gym, where he’s a personal trainer. And he just started to work at CVS, a job that promised some financial stability.

Reflecting what has helped him turn his life around, Bernard credits the steady support of his family, but says his savior has been getting an education. Many of the people he met in prison went back to a life of crime after being released for lack of opportunities and connections.

“When you have people who believe in you, it makes a difference,” he says.

The educational program Bernard took part in is called the Prison-to-College Pipeline. It is managed by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice through an umbrella initiative called Prison Reentry Institute.

Through the program, incarcerated men across New York state have access to college courses taught by faculty members from John Jay and Hostos Community College. Prospective students must satisfy certain criteria in order to enroll. They must have a high-school diploma, be five years from their release date, and have a plan to live in the New York metropolitan area and study for a college degree after release. Age and criminal history are not factored in the admission process, program administrators say.

“We do not screen students based on criminal conviction,” says Bianca Van Heydoorn, director of educational initiatives for John Jay’s Prisoner Reentry Institute.

Courses are introductory level and can be used to satisfy academic requirements for any major, giving student ample choice. The program is part-time. Students only take two courses, or six credits, each semester. There is no way students can get all credits needed to earn a degree while still behind bars. And that is not what the program is meant for, Van Heydoorn said.

“There’s something really valuable about being on campus and having access to the resources,” Van Heydoorn said, “Our students start inside but the intention os for them to complete their degrees in the community.”

The Corrections Department can remove students from the program under certain circumstances, as a punitive action. People who are sentenced to punitive segregation, also called solitary confinement, might lose their right to participate in educational programs and to receive financial aid.

The scale of the credit-bearing courses program has been, so far, pretty modest: only 29 students are currently enrolled. The program’s limited scale owes to the fact that it survives on grants coming from private foundations and from very modest state support.

A funding workaround

The Prison Reentry Institute, however, has set a goal of enrolling 150 students for fall next year, which will be accomplished with new funding coming from a federal initiative called Second Chance Pell Pilot Program.

At the time of Lyndon Johnson’s administration, the Higher Education Act of 1965 provided student loans, also known as Pell grants, to all qualifying students, including those who were serving time in prison. But since 1994, when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed, inmates were cut off from federal and state funding. The move effectively abolished 350 college programs in U.S prisons.

In 2014, however, the Obama administration took advantage of legals power embedded in a 1992 law to waive some of those restrictive provisions. The Experimental Sites Initiative, as it was called, paved the way for the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which restores federal funding to 12,000 prisoners at more than 100 correctional institutions across the country to pay for their higher education costs.

In 2015, John Jay College was one of the 69 colleges, out of over 200 that applied, to be chosen by the U.S. Department of Education to participate in the program.Now the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program is providing the Prison Reentry Institute vital funding for expanding outreach and offer a chance to study to more prisoners than just the current few, and to involve a larger number of prisons. There are 54 in the state.

Currently, only 12 states provide state funding for higher education programs. In 28 states, the primary source of college funding comes directly from the inmates or their families.

A way out of limbo

Danny Matos was only 16-years-old when he committed a crime that sentenced him 20 years to life in prison. Even at that age, Matos understood that education was vital to getting out of prison. With the GED he obtained from Rikers Island and the Associates Degree he received from Sage Junior College of Albany at Coxsackie Correctional Facility, Matos was already making great progress.

Sadly, Matos graduating class was the last to obtain their Associates Degree before the 1990s Pell grant cuts.

“All of the colleges left,” says Matos. “It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in the rehabilitation these programs provided, they just cared about money.”

For six years, Matos was what he called “education limbo.” During his time in prison, Matos made sure he was still active by facilitating and participating in latino organizations, behavioral and conflict resolution programs.

The he heard of a program called Hudson Link for Higher Education Program, which brings college education to state prisons in order to assist with re-entry once they’re released.

In the spring of 2002, after being denied the first time for not having enough credits to enter the program, Hudson Link accepted Matos into the program.

“Some people question why a prisoner should get a free education,” said Matos. “They don’t realize how beneficial it is to these men and women once they have that outlet.”

Matos graduated the Mercy College/Hudson Link program in 2004 at Sing Sing correctional facility with a Bachelor’s Degree in Behavioral Science. And now he’s a Hudson Link board member.

The Hudson Link programs, which teach basic English, math, business and sociology courses, relates to Hudson Link’s main goal: to provide college education, life skills and re-entry support to incarcerated men and women who want to make a positive impact on their lives.The initiative was formed in 1998–after Congress cut off prisoners’ access to Pell grants–to privately fund college programs in New York State prison.

There is a high volume of inmate interest. According to one professor, many inmates are wait-listed to finally be able to take college courses. The wait can last from a few weeks to several months.

Hudson Link points to research indicating that 40 percent of adult offenders wind up back in prison just three years after they’re released. With the college courses taught in these prisons by Hudson Link, less than two percent of alumni have returned to prison since the program began 16 years ago.

Popular among teachers

Twice a week, three hours a day last year, Douglas Evans taught an introductory sociology course through Hudson Link. Evans, who has also taught elsewhere, says the women he taught at Taconic State Prison were the best he’s ever had.

“They’re sharp and motivated,” said Evans. “They are always concerned about their grades and always want to do better.

“Any type of education is a good thing,” said Evans. “They have two dual forces working against one another – having a college education and being a former inmate. While they may have made a mistake, these courses help them see their place in the world.”

Evans, who began teaching for the Hudson Link for Higher Education program this past year, was on a wait list for three years due to a high volume of interest from other professors at different Universities before he was called to teach sociology in Taconic State Prison.

“Everybody wants to teach these courses,” said Evans.

Other teachers also say classroom work behind bars can be rewarding. But they also encounter challenges.

Once a week, Elys Vasquez-Izcan, leaves her car in the parking lot of the Otisville Correctional Facility after driving for an hour an half from her home in New York City through the upstate’s scenery of green pastures and farms. Her John Jay Prison-to-College class starts at 12 p.m., so she gives herself enough time to get through the gates and checkpoint processing that separates her from her students.

Each item she brings to her class has to be authorized by the prison’s administration prior to her arrival. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. One day Vasquez-Izcan brought a DVD to show her students as part of her lecture, only to find out she didn’t have clearance for it.

“I always have to have a plan B,” she says. “I cannot lose patience. I cannot lose control, because if I do that I might be hurting the students. I just have to keep rolling with the punches.”

Even if she is not the one to be serving time, the prison’s staff often makes her feel unwelcome.

“For the most part, they see education as a luxury,” Vasquez-Izcan says.

Lessons in the Prison-to-College Pipeline program take place in a classroom without computers nor Internet access. When students have to look something up, they can borrow books from the prison’s library.

“We don’t have access to technology, so we’re teaching like back in the 80’s, with the blackboard and chalk,” Vasquez-Izcan says.

The instructor brings reading material to the students, who prepare for the following class with notes on the readings and questions that would spark class debate. Lessons are very much like conversation in Vasquez-Izcan’s class, called Intro to Community Health, which bears three college credits. About a dozen students are in her class. They type their papers by taking turns on two typing machines.

Studying while in prison presents significant challenges. Students have only limited time to do their assignments and they’re expected to do their daily chores just like all other inmates. The prison staff is often hostile, she says.

Vasquez-Izcan understands where her students are coming from. Young men who were raised in broken families and were often dumped into the foster care system, who grew up disenfranchised in neighborhoods with an high incidence of crime, high absenteeism rates and little opportunities.

“Their lives is what we talk about in textbooks,” Vasquez-Izcan says. Her students behind bars are some of the best she’s ever taught to, she says, because “they know what’s at stake.”

“To me, it’s not a second chance,” Vasquez-Izcan said. “They never had a first chance.”

Challenges in the work place

While getting an degree might mitigate the stigma of having a felony on record, finding employment is hard for students involved in the Prison Reentry Initiative programs. New York State has laws that curtail discrimination against formerly incarcerated people in the job market, but many don’t get past the job interview.

Van Heydoorn says alumni of the Prison Reentry Initiative help each other find employment, but the competitiveness of the job market makes it hard for people with past convictions. “It’s hard when every job interview you go on feels like another person judging you. It feels like a parole hearing,” Van Heydoorn says.

Matos, still determined to continue his education, went on to get his Masters Degree in Urban Ministry through the New York Theological Seminary in 2006 at Sing Sing. He was finally released from prison on November 25, 2011 from Woodbourne Correctional Facility.

“Committing a crime and being a part of a crime doesn’t mean you’re still a criminal today,” says Matos. “I’ve come to terms with my crimes. [Hudson Link] helped me become the best person I can be so I don’t have to go down that route again.”

“Education truly does change people, and can give people a different outlook on life,” he says.