Most college presidents don’t go to prison, but going to prison is often the highlight of my year.
When I confer diplomas at the Nyack College commencement ceremony that takes place at Fishkill Correctional Facility, I know lives are being changed -- and not just those of the incarcerated students receiving their degrees. One of our graduates told me at commencement, “I’m not earning this degree just to make myself a better person. I want to put this diploma on the wall and tell my grandchildren, ‘If I can do this, you can do it too!’”
The benefits of providing education programs in prisons are clear. A report from the Correctional Association of New York found that, in addition to reduced recidivism, education gives inmates an incentive for good behavior and produces well-read, articulate leaders who have a calming influence on other inmates and even on prison employees. And those benefits continue after a person’s release. A RAND Corporation study found that “For every dollar spent on correctional education, five dollars are saved on three-year reincarceration costs.”
Prison can be a dehumanizing experience, but in the classroom, Fishkill inmates become Nyack students, and they exemplify these positive outcomes. They bring a strong focus and work ethic to their classes because they know the value of what they are being offered. They find a place where their opinions are heard, their voices matter, their emotions are validated and their dreams come closer to reality.
The education that such students receive is transformative and sets them up for success. The recidivism rate in New York is over 40 percent, according to the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision; the recidivism rate of Nyack’s graduates from Fishkill is 0 percent.
The U.S. Department of Education selected Nyack College and 68 other colleges to offer the Second Chance Pell Grant through a pilot program. Our institutions collectively serve nearly 102,000 prisoners in more than 100 state and federal prisons. As encouraging as those numbers are, many more institutions of higher education are interested in offering programs in prisons than are able to do so. The department selected our 69 institutions from over 200 that applied to be part of the pilot. Making Pell Grants available to incarcerated students would provide the financial assistance they need to pursue life-changing educational opportunities.
Financial resources can be major barriers for many institutions of higher education. Legislation like the FIRST STEP Act (H.R. 5682), which the House may vote on this week, would augment prison programs like ours by further incentivizing incarcerated students for program completion, vocational training and rehabilitation. Restoring Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated persons with additional legislation, like the REAL Act (H.R. 254), would also aid these efforts. The passing of these legislative options would have far-reaching benefits for individuals and communities too often overlooked.
At Nyack, our faith teaches that all people have God-given dignity, regardless of whatever mistakes they may have made, and that no one is too far gone to experience transformation through Christ. Every time I shake hands with the graduates at Fishkill, I don’t see a man and his past; I see a man and the possibilities for his future. When I present more than 50 bachelor’s and associate’s degrees next February at our largest-yet commencement, I’ll speak words of congratulations and encouragement. But the main lesson I hope graduates and attendees -- and legislators, too -- take away is one that undergirds both education and faith: it’s never too late for a person to be what they might have been.