A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West.

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

Beginnings and endings

Marymount Manhattan College’s class of 2024 at Bedford Hills on May 30. (Photo: Charlotte West/Open Campus)

People often think of graduation as an end to something — the end of your education or the carefree days of college. Alternatively, it can be the beginning of something — the start of your career, or adulthood. But after spending the last month visiting several college graduations in prisons, I think that the metaphor of a milestone seems more appropriate. 

Graduation is just one stop along the way to getting an education, which inside prisons can take a really long time. One graduate I talked to at Sing Sing — a men’s maximum security prison on the banks of the Hudson River — said that his associate’s degree from Mercy University was 30 years in the making. He entered prison in 1995, the year after the crime bill decimated federal funding for higher education inside. 

Graduation day is its own milestone, a chance for students inside to stop and reflect on where they’ve come from and where they’re going — and who they want to be — before they move on to the next stage. More than one of the graduates I spoke with said that education inside has allowed them to embrace their identities as students, scholars, and graduates. It’s a moment when their families can be proud of them, and they can be proud of themselves. 


-SPONSOR MESSAGE-

Join us at the 2024 Horizons summit where educators, leaders, investors, policymakers, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, philanthropists, and corporations from every sector converge in Washington, DC on July 22-23 for 2-days of thought leadership, networking and transformation of the work-and-learn ecosystem. Register Today!


The different graduations all had distinct tones and tenors. I had the chance to attend ceremonies at two of New York’s three prisons for women. The women at Bedford Hills came out in style. Their energy was electrifying as current students and alumni of Marymount Manhattan College cheered on the graduates as they crossed the stage. The celebration across the street at Taconic was more subdued, with a big focus on what’s to come in the future. Jennifer Martinez, the valedictorian and commencement speaker, noted that all seven graduates will soon be going home. 

Current Marymount Manhattan College students congratulate a 2024 graduate. (Photo: Charlotte West/Open Campus)

The Mercy University graduation at Sing Sing had a more serious tone. In April, one of the graduates, Paul Grant, died of a heart attack at the age of 37. His mother, Joyce Newell, attended the ceremony to accept his bachelor’s degree. All of the men carried red roses in memory of Paul as they accepted their own diplomas. 

Paul Grant’s mother hugs Sean Pica, executive director of Hudson Link for Higher Education, as she accepts a diploma on behalf of her son. (Photo: Babita Patel/Open Campus)

Joel Jimenez, program director of Hudson Link for Higher Education, is an alumni of Mercy University’s program at Sing Sing. He graduated in 2010 and went home five years later, going on to work for Hudson Link and pursuing graduate studies on the outside. He opted to have his MBA from Mercy conferred inside because he wanted to walk alongside the graduates in their educational journey.

As many of them begin to think about what life after prison looks like, he wanted them to be able to envision themselves in his shoes. “It was important for them to see me as a beacon of hope, as a visual representation of what their future can look like,” Joel told me. “Their hope for a better future is possible.”

It was amazing to be able to attend these events and celebrate with the graduates. But it also brought to the fore something else I often think about as I cover prison education. While it’s important to highlight the success stories, it’s equally important if not more so to continue to focus on the lack of access to higher education that so many people, particularly those serving long sentences, face behind bars. 

Stories that focus on “one exceptional person in one exceptional program” obscure and ignore the greater truths about education in prison, Michael Simmons recently wrote in an op-ed published in the Chicago Tribune. He was initially heartened by a Good Morning America story featuring his friend Benard McKinley, who took the LSAT behind bars and will start law school at Northwestern University in the fall. Michael was concerned because stories like Bernard’s are often presented as a miracle and “a lesson of the possibility of turning one singular life around through hard work and discipline.”

Mercy University valedictorian Nigel Thomas-Francis holds his daughter during the commencement at Sing Sing on June 5. (Photo: Babita Patel/Open Campus)

“The greater story, the greater truth, the reality, is that America’s prisons have thousands of men and women like Benard, each somehow already excelling, making much from little, overcoming a hundred hurdles and a thousand barriers and showing transformed lives of rehabilitation and promise,” Michael wrote. “But they lack the opportunities provided Benard and others (including me).”

That’s an important reminder to me as someone who spends my time thinking about what stories need to be told about education inside, and the importance of accountability journalism in shedding light on what’s really happening in our prisons and jails. 

Thanks for reading, and congrats to the class of 2024! And don’t miss this first-person essay by Benjamin Frandsen, about how education was his guide from prison to UCLA to Comic-Con.

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. You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org or on TwitterLinkedIn, or Instagram. To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Open Campus, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.

We know that not everyone has access to email, so if you’d like to have a print copy College Inside sent to an incarcerated friend or family member, you can sign them up here. We also publish the PDFs of our print newsletter on the Open Campus website.

There is no cost to subscribe to the print edition of College Inside. But as a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on grants and donations to keep bringing you the news about prison education. You can also donate here.

Interested in reaching people who care about higher education in prisons? Get in touch at sales@opencampusmedia.org or request our media kit.

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.