NYS Higher Ed in Prison

By Adrian Currie

New York State has a number of avenues inmates can take to get a college education while serving prison sentences.  Inmates are able to earn associates and bachelor’s degrees taking the same or similar courses available to non-incarcerated students.  The NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) collaborates with colleges and universities to offer college programs at prisons throughout the state.  While the programs offered vary by location, statistics show that attaining a college degree while in prison significantly reduces the chances of the inmate returning to prison.

According to a report by DOCCS, 8,744 individuals returned to state facilities out of the 20,776 inmates released from custody in 2015, a recidivism rate of 42%.  The report is based on the number of inmates who returned to custody within three years of their release and is consistent with the state’s average recidivism rate which runs around 40%.  However, institutions that sponsor college in prison programs report significantly lower rates of recidivism for students who attained college degrees prior to their release.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), defines recidivism as “a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime,” and is measured by “criminal acts that resulted in rearrest, reconviction or return to prison with or without a new sentence during a three-year period following the person’s release.”

Research conducted by the Rand Corporation, a public policy research organization, found that inmates participating in correctional education programs, inclusive of high-school diploma and G.E.D. programs, have a 13% reincarceration rate, a 43% recidivism reduction rate from the national average.  College in prison programs report even lower recidivism rates, some as low as 2%.  These findings are significant because of the positive impact graduates have on their communities in jail as well as after re-entering society.

Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison is one college-in-prison program in the state of New York that helps to fund the education for inmates behind bars.  “Our alumni return to their families and communities as role models, and 85% are gainfully employed in the field of social services within three months of release,” says Hudson Link. Funding for the program comes from private donors and grants, and the program works closely with DOCCS to connect with inmates who want to participate in college degree programs.

Hudson Link was founded in 1998 following the federal 1994 ban on Pell grants for incarcerated individuals seeking a college education.  The non-profit was formed by Sing Sing inmates, educators, community members, and volunteers. It is privately funded and reports that less than 2% of its graduates return to prison within three years.

Hudson Link currently has over 500 students enrolled at the nine campuses. It partners with Columbia University, Columbia-Greene Community College, Marymount Manhattan College, Mercy College, St. Thomas Aquinas College, SUNY Sullivan, Mt. Sain Mary College, SUNY Ulster Community College, and Vassar College.  These campuses operate out of six correctional facilities across the state: Green Haven Correctional Facility, Greene Correctional Facility, Shawangunk Correctional Facility, Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Sullivan Correctional Facility, and Taconic Correctional Facility.

Students can enroll in associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degree programs depending on the prison that houses them.  Sing Sing is the only correctional facility in New York State that offers all three degree programs.  Students participating in Hudson Link’s Higher Education in Prison program continue to receive support through the program’s Alumni Services Program, including mentoring, assistance with reentry into the community, and connections to partner organizations for employment.  Hudson Link has more than 1400 alumni and has awarded more than 750 college degrees to students over the past 26 years.

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) currently houses 30,817 incarcerated individuals in 44 facilities throughout the state, according to a DOCCS monthly report issued May 1, 2022.  That report also states that DOCCS is responsible for ensuring their successful re-entry back into the community.  “The goal of college programs is to enable incarcerated individuals to continue education beyond high school and work toward earning a college certificate or degree,” according to DOCCS.

Following the federal ban of Pell grant eligibility for inmates, NYS implemented its own ban a year later disallowing incarcerated persons’ eligibility for state aid through the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).  NYS governor, Kathy Hochul, announced in April an expansion of the NYS TAP program that would repeal that ban and once again allow NYS inmates to be eligible for TAP funding for college-in-prison programs. This announcement followed a bipartisan $2.3 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress in December 2020 that included changes to the Higher Education Act of 1965, reopening Pell grant eligibility to incarcerated individuals.  This change isn’t expected to go into effect until July 2023, according to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).

The DOE announced in April an expansion of the Second Chance Pell Experiment, increasing the number of schools from 127 to 200 that are eligible to participate.  The program, first launched in 2015 under the Obama-Biden Administration, provides Pell grants to incarcerated students at select colleges and universities.  Four State University of New York (SUNY) campuses were invited to participate in the experiment as a part of this expansion.  SUNY has 13 campuses in 21 of the state’s 53 prisons and serves more than 700 students, which makes SUNY the largest state prison education provider.

The City University of New York (CUNY) has a college-in-prison reentry program at Otisville Correctional Facility that operates through the CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.  The program, called Prison-to-College Pipeline (P2CP), is designed to prepare students to reenter society by allowing eligible inmates to take accredited credit-bearing courses to complete John Jay’s general education requirements. While students don’t earn a degree, P2CP gives them the foundation and support needed to continue higher education studies after their release. Courses at the facility are taught by CUNY professors.

The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) is a college-in-prison program, much-like Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, that gives incarcerated individuals in New York an opportunity to attain associate’s and bachelor’s degrees at different DOCCS prisons. The program was founded in 1999 by undergraduates at Bard College, inspired by the 1994 federal Crime Bill that banned prisoners from being eligible to receive Pell grants for college programs in jails.  The program was officially launched by Bard College in 2001.

BPI has over 300 students enrolled in the program at prisons across NYS: Taconic, Coxsackie, Eastern, Fishkill, Green Haven, and Woodbourne correctional facilities. Bard is a nonprofit funded primarily by private donations and grants. Students enroll at no cost, though some may be eligible to receive state and federal financial aid, as they have both been recently reinstated for eligible prisoners enrolled in college-in-prison programs.

Bard students earn their associate’s degree before moving on to the bachelor’s program, where they participate in “advanced B.A. seminars, moderate into specific majors, and spend a year writing their senior thesis projects,” according to BPI.  The curriculum includes a minimum of six academic writing courses as well as arts, languages, literature, humanities, science, mathematics, computing, and social studies. Students participate in extracurricular activities, such as the BPI Debate Union and Arts and Culture Events and also help tutor their peers. The debate team won against West Point April 2014 and has gone on to beat other prestigious schools such as Harvard University, University of Cambridge, and Morehouse College, holding a winning record of 11-2.

BPI students model Bard College curricula and receive Bard College degrees, 600 degrees to date.  The program awarded more than 52,000 credits and offered more than 1750 courses since it began in 2001 and offers 19 to 24 classes each day. After release most receive “paid internships and fellowships, specialized training, and career guidance” while some attend graduate school or contribute to society in some other way. Sixty to 70 alumni return home each year with 85% becoming employed within two months. BPI alumni have attended over 40 college and universities post-release, according to Bard.

BPI graduates have a recidivism rate of 4% and 5% for students who started but did not complete the degree program.  A four-part documentary titled, “College Behind Bars,” depicts the lives of select Bard Prison Initiative students at Eastern and Taconic correctional facilities over a four-year period.  The film highlights the challenges BPI students face as they pursue their associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in BPI’s rigorous higher education program. “College Behind Bars” helps to support the importance of having higher educational opportunities in prisons. According to Bard, Hudson Link, and others, college in prison saves taxpayers a great deal of money, as the cost of housing a prisoner is roughly $60,000 a year compared to an estimated $5,000 per year for higher education.

There are other higher educational programs in NYS that collaborate with DOCCS to give prisoners an opportunity to earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. The Justice-In-Education Initiative (JIE) is based at Columbia University and “works with other university and community-based organizations to conduct courses, workshops, and creative projects on campus, in local prisons, and at the Rikers Island jail complex.” One of the programs under JIE is the Prison Education Program (PEP) which operates in several correctional facilities, including Taconic, Sing Sing, Queensboro, Edgecombe, Rikers, and Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.  Students earn Columbia credits taught that can be used to fulfill degree requirements at other institutions.

Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP) partners with (SUNY) Cayuga Community College, University of Rochester, Ithaca College, (SUNY) Corning Community College, Syracuse, and other regional colleges to offer an associate degree program for individuals at Auburn, Cayuga, Elmira, and Five Points Correctional Facilities.  The four prisons are within a one-hour drive from Cornell University’s main campus in Ithaca, NY.  Marymount Manhattan College operates two programs, Bedford Hills College Program (BHCP) and Taconic College Program (TCP) to offer Associate and Bachelor degree programs to women incarcerated at the Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facilities.

New York University Prison Education Program (NYU PEP), located in Manhattan, offers an associate of arts degree program to inmates at Wallkill Correctional Facility, along with continued educational support post-release. Students receive “full-tuition scholarships, living stipends, and other forms of financial aide to support their professional and educational goals post-release,” according to NYU PEP.  They have the option to transfer to the NYU Washington Square campus, other locations, or simply receive resources depending on their need. The program is funded by private donations and grants. Rochester Education Justice Initiative (REJI) administers college degree programs at Groveland and Attica Correctional Facilities.  Total enrollment is approximately 60 students per semester.


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