|Most women and men in our nations jails and prisons come from economically depressed African American and Latino communities with failing urban schools.27 In New York State, as of January 1, 2000, there were 73,826 people in New York State Prisons, up from 12,500 in 1973 and 28,500 in 1983.28 The state prison population is disproportionately (84%) African American and Hispanic and a full 65% of the total population are from New York City almost all from poor communities of color.29,30 Turning to education, approximately two-thirds of the men and women in New York State prisons have neither high school diploma nor a GED. This figure jumps to 90% in New York City jails. Between 50% and 70% of the Citys adult inmate population read below the sixth grade level in English.31
The women at BHCF reflect national and state trends. A full 51% of the women at BHCF enter with neither a high school diploma nor a GED, most lived in poor neighborhoods of New York City prior to arrest and over 80% are African American or Latina.32 While our country may waffle on whether or not we believe prisoners are entitled to higher education, we are consistent with respect to who ends up in prison: disproportionately those who have never received adequate education. It is no small irony, then, that those most often denied quality education prior to their involvement with prison are also those most likely to serve time in prisons and jails.
Understanding the link between edu-cational inequities and incarceration, policymakers from the 1870 American Correctional Association Congress endorsed a provision for education within prison.33 In 1970, one hundred years after their declaration was written, sections 136 and 137 of the Corrections Law in the State of New York were passed, requiring the Department of Correctional Services to assess a prisoners educational and vocational needs and provide each inmate with a program of education which seems most likely to further the process of socialization and rehabilitation, the objective being to return these inmates to society with a more wholesome attitude toward living, with a desire to conduct themselves as good citizens, and with the skills and knowledge which will give them a reasonable chance to maintain themselves and their depend-ents through honest labor.
Nationally, federal support for higher education in prison materialized in the form of allowing women and men in prison eligibility for Pell grants, the non-competitive needs-based federal college funds available to all qualifying low-income students. In New York State, Pell grants were supplemented with Tap grants in order to subsidize college-in-prison programs. From 1970 through 1994, the federal and New York State governments were true to their commit-ments to support prison-based higher education.
In 1994, under a provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, Congress eliminated inmate eligibility for Pell Grants. Allowing inmate access to Pell Grants was viewed as taking money away from law-abiding citizens, despite the fact that inmate education accounted for 1/10 of 1% of the Pell Grants annual budget.34 At the time that federal support was removed, extensive research demonstrated that recidivism rates decline significantly with higher education.35 Despite the evidence, by 1995, all but eight of the 350 college programs in prisons were closed nationwide. As public funds for college education in all New York State prisons were eliminated, a successful college program at BHCF, run by Mercy College from 1984 through 1994, closed its doors. Given the extraordinarily low levels of educational achievement with which most enter prison, this loss was not only educationally consequential but also, according to reports from women and corrections officers at BHCF, profound in terms of morale and discipline.
In June of 1995, the last graduation took place. During the following weeks, the women who had staffed the Learning Center, who had received their bachelors and masters degrees and who had acted as role models, packed books, put computers in boxes, took posters off walls and turned their learning center into an empty shell. A feeling of despair settled over the prison as women experienced a loss of hope about their own futures and the futures of younger women coming into the prison.
Community members and educational leaders began to gather to try to imagine how they could restore college-in-prison at BHCF. In March of 1996, seven women in BHCF asked to meet with Superintendent Elaine Lord and the Deputy Superintendent of Programs about the possible restoration of the college program. Shortly thereafter, the Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent, the Inmate Committee and a local community leader, former New York State Deputy Commissioner for Aging, Thea Jackson, convened to explore the possibility of creating a new, privately funded college program. Response from citizen groups across Westchester and New York City was immediate and positive. A strong alliance emerged between three communities: the prison community including admin-istration, staff and inmates; the Westchester and metropolitan New York City community, including hundreds of citizens committed to the return of college and responsible for equipping the Learning Center with staff, desks, files, computers and books, and the academic community, led by President Regina Peruggi of Marymount Manhattan College, serving as the degree granting institution.
Over the next few months, a Task Force was established consisting of community members from the Westchester area; local government officials; local clergy and church members; professors, presidents and administrators from local colleges and universities; administrators from BHCF, and inmates from the Inmate Advisory Committee. It was at this point that the concept of a consortium of colleges was realized. If one college would offer the degree, then many colleges could work together to donate courses. The Superintendent, the inmates and community members generated Statements of Commitment. By Spring of 1997, a BA in sociology program was underway in the facility.