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Comeback stories

Welcome to College Inside, a newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. I’m Charlotte West, a national reporter for Open Campus. Sign up for a copy of this newsletter here.


‘I wonder about comeback stories. Danny’s might be one.’

This week, we’re featuring a guest essay by Nicholas Brooks, a writer who is incarcerated at Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York State. Nicholas profiles his friend, Daniel Sanchez, in “I wonder about comeback stories. Danny’s might be one.” Here’s an excerpt:

Danny’s journey was not like mine. It took almost nine years and nine different prisons — violence, solitary, violence, solitary — before he would enroll in a college program. He wished that he hadn’t been so violent, he wished he could have gotten in a college program earlier in his bid. 

With Danny’s story, it appeared a hard life on the outside spilled over to a hard life on the inside. When I think of Danny, and all his potential, and his hunger to learn and his life without parole sentence, I wonder where he gets his drive. It also makes me think more about redemption.

I wonder about comeback stories. Danny’s might be one.

Danny is Black and I am white, and we had very different early educations. I went to Horace Mann, a private school in New York, and I was expected to succeed. Danny, on the other hand, dropped out of school at 14 and later earned his GED in prison.

Seeing his extraordinary talent first-hand makes me feel guilty. My intelligence was groomed and nurtured, his was innate. When I look at Danny, I become frustrated because I see so much ability and greatness in him. I don’t know if he can overcome the choices he made that put him here, and seeing all of his wasted talent forces me to look inward and ask myself: “Is it too late for both of us?”

In 2012, Danny was in Attica and wrote to his counselor to apply for college classes. They never even responded to his letter. So, Danny did what he knew best, started selling drugs in prison and ended up cutting someone who gave him a fake Western Union receipt.

In 2017, Danny landed in Five Points Correctional Facility, a supermax in New York State. It was one of the prisons built with the “truth in sentencing” funds from the 1994 Clinton crime bill, which quashed Pell Grants for prisoners. When his bunkie started bringing back books from the college courses he was taking, Danny read them all…It inspired him to fill out an application, hoping to enroll in the next available semester. The response he received was less than encouraging. He was told that he had too much time left on his sentence and was ineligible.

He was transferred to Sullivan in 2019. Our first encounter was when I was trying to put together my flag football team….As the season progressed Danny and I became friends. He told me that he’d just enrolled in college and it had changed him. It taught him emotional intelligence, helped him identify his feelings and made him question the street code.

“I’m choosing a different fork in the road,” he said, “one I haven’t traveled before.”

Read Nick’s full essay here.

The reentry experiences of juvenile lifers

Roughly 80 percent of 112 Philadelphians who, as juveniles, were sentenced to life in prison had been suspended from school at least once and about half had been expelled before they were incarcerated. Sixty-four percent reported earning poor grades in school. Those findings were in a recently published policy brief on the reentry experiences of juvenile lifers in Philadelphia.

That city has the highest number of juvenile lifers in the country, according to researchers at Montclair State University in New Jersey, who authored the brief.

As more and more juvenile lifers, who were sentenced when they were under 18 years old, are being released due to sentencing reform following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 Miller v. Alabama ruling and its 2016 Montgomery v. Louisiana decision, the researchers wanted to document their experiences before, during, and after incarceration.

Almost all of the juvenile lifers surveyed had participated in some form of prison programming, but more than half reported having been restricted from programs they wanted to participate in, mostly vocational programs such as barbering (Pennsylvania prioritizes people who have less than five years left on their sentences for vocational training). Sixteen percent mentioned college credit courses when asked what programs they were shut out from. 

Eighty-eight percent of the juvenile lifers surveyed participated in GED classes and 40 percent had some college programming. 

“A lot of these guys who did end up taking advantage of the college programming were able to enroll through their perseverance as opposed to these programs being allocated for them,” said Tarika Daftary-Kapur, professor of justice studies at Montclair State and one of the authors of the brief. 

Although programming in general did not have a significant impact on juvenile lifers’ reentry experience, participating in college classes may have had an effect on the type of jobs they had post-release.

Seventy-one percent had jobs in areas such as construction, maintenance, janitorial services, or retail. Around 22 percent were working in advocacy or the legal or nonprofit sectors, or held administrative positions. 

Daftary-Kapur said that while the numbers are too small to show a statistical significance between college classes and type of employment, follow-up interviews indicate that those who had college classes might be more likely to find white collar jobs. “Those who sought out college credits seem to be the ones who landed those types of positions, based on early analysis,” she said.  

Twenty-nine percent of the surveyed juvenile lifers reported that finding employment was their biggest challenge for reentry. The biggest barriers to employment were: 

  • Having a criminal record (65 percent);
  •  A lack of job experience (46 percent);
  • A lack of job skills (28 percent).

Only 20 percent of respondents said that accessing educational opportunities was “the most challenging aspect of reentry.” Daftary-Kapur said that follow-up interviews showed that most juvenile lifers were not looking for educational opportunities after release. “It seems like education isn’t the top priority when they’re coming out,” she said. “It’s really getting a job, finding housing, and reconnecting with family.”

One of the recommendations made by the researchers was to provide more programming and training for juvenile lifers, especially as a growing number of states are passing “second chance” laws. “As such, it might be prudent to revise policies that restrict lifers and virtual lifers from educational and vocational programming,” they wrote.

Research & resources

PEN America is distributing 75,000 copies of The Sentences That Create Us, a book on writing behind bars. A free copy can be requested online at https://t.co/ST7zHTQawK, or by writing to: Prison Writing Program c/o PEN America, 588 Broadway Suite 303, New York, NY 10012.

Ithaka S+R and Ennead Lab are launching a two-year research and design project to look at the challenges and opportunities of the physical spaces where higher education is delivered in prison. Contact kurtis.tanaka@ithaka.org for more information.

News & views

Cal State Los Angeles has received a $1 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to establish the first in-person bachelor’s degree program for incarcerated women in California. The university is partnering with Chaffey College to offer the new program for women, which builds on the bachelor’s program for incarcerated men at California State Prison, Los Angeles County in Lancaster. Students at the California Institute for Women in Riverside County will be able to earn a BA in liberal studies, with an option in interdisciplinary studies in culture and society. Classes are expected to begin in fall 2022.

Oregon did not offer any college classes for incarcerated women until Portland State University’s Higher Education in Prison program launched at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the state’s only women’s prison, in 2019. The program started as a one-year, 15-credit, interdisciplinary course designed to meet PSU’s first year general education requirements. Since then, the program has raised over $300,000 and now enrolls around 75 students, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. This year Oregon lawmakers also passed a bill allowing online college courses at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility as well as the Snake River Correctional Institution, a men’s prison.

A recent report by the Los Angeles Probation Oversight Commission, a civilian body that advises the probation department, highlighted the observations made during a series of site visits to classrooms in LA county’s Juvenile Court School. The commission recommended that “all reform efforts for juvenile court schools in Los Angeles County recognize that improving student engagement must be the immediate priority.” The observers found that “classrooms generally lacked a culture of learning” and noted that students were not given space to express whether or not their needs were being met. 

For Book Club Chicago, Pascal Sabino reported on a scholarship program in cannabis studies at Olive-Harvey College in Pullman, Illinois. The program teaches people who were once arrested on marijuana possession how to work in the cannabis industry, which was legalized in Illinois in 2019. Participants in the nine-month scholarship program receive free tuition, a $1,000 monthly stipend, and academic and other basic needs support. The scholarship is funded by tax revenues from recreational pot sales. Students earn a certificate in cannabis studies upon completion and the program is on track to have an accredited associate’s degree in cannabis studies by spring 2023. Two cohorts with a total of 47 students have received the scholarship. The program aims to increase racial equity in the pot industry.

Let’s connect

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. Right now, I’m especially interested in speaking with juvenile lifers who have been shut out of education programs because of the length of their sentence as well as anyone incarcerated at a facility without academic or vocational education beyond high school. I’m also looking for information on how prison education programs are accommodating students with disabilities

You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org on JPay/Securus/Connect Network/Corrlinks or on Twitter at @szarlotka

To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Charlotte West, Open Campus Media, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062. 

— Charlotte

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