Education Behind Bars: Part
II of a Series
Integrating Ex-Inmates Into Society
Even with the discontinuation of Pell Grants in correctional
facilities for adults, there are those whose belief in the
value of higher education and the power of the individual to
continually improve goes beyond funding crises.
Evidence of this phenomenon
is clear through the efforts which occur at the Episcopal
Center College Initiative, a non-profit organization with
the mission of assisting recently released individuals to
pursue their goal of beginning or continuing college. The
organization additionally works closely with individuals
currently in correctional facilities who wish to engage in
educational planning. Currently enrollment includes 92 individuals—about
10 percent women—and 27 different colleges. Funding comes
from foundation grants and from the organization itself which
has access to some funds from the church. There is funding
from the State Government through the support of Republican
Senator Dale Volker and upstate NY Assemblyman Jeff Aubrey.
Benay Rubenstien, Director of College Initiative, it is easy
to see her enthusiasm for the mission of reintegrating those
who have been, or are currently in correctional facilities,
Rubenstein began her
career 20 years ago working at Marist College, where she
coordinated programs at Federal Correctional Institutions
(FCIs). At the time, Pell Grants and Half Grants were available
and Rubenstein “loved the work.” Prior
to working at College Initiative, she ran the college program
at Bedford Hills for three years.
She cites the rewards of working in the field as being many.
The students are there voluntarily and largely are individuals
who would not have the opportunity to attend college outside
of the prison setting and so they come to the program with
an eagerness to learn.
“There is the sense of excitement, of soaking it up,
of being thrilled at the opportunity to expand one’s
knowledge base and choice,” says Rubenstein. She metaphorically
describes the experience as lighting a small torch which then
proceeds to light up the entire sky.
Cheryl Wilkins, a former
inmate at Bedford Hills who is currently a counselor at College
Initiative, emphatically describes her appreciation for the
educational program there: “It is
a shrine for us.” While in prison she completed a B.A.
in sociology and described the program as a great privilege,
helping to keep her focused on her future.
At College Initiative,
relates Rubenstein, the work done with clients is not limited
to academics and employment. “We
assist formally with education, but we assist informally with
everything. This encompasses issues ranging from voting to
socialization.” She recommends jobs in the Human Services
field to former prison inmate. In this field, experience is
a plus, especially when the services deal with individuals
who are being released from correctional facilities. There
is unfortunately, explains Ms. Rubenstein, a stigma attached
and the way to overcome it is to see people as individuals.
She believes that there is the need to “get past the
view of ‘us/them’ because “as long as there’s
a group excluded, society as a whole suffers.”
Ms. Rubenstein has
a holistic view of individuals, believing that “human beings, whether in prison or not are always
growing, changing and evolving—it’s just the nature
of being human.”
The biggest challenge
regarding the criminal justice system is lack of funding.
But Rubenstein closely monitors the possibility of the return
of Pell Grants. A national conference is planned with a focus
on a more organized campaign for Pell Grants for correctional
facilities. Rubenstein believes that with the return of Pell
Grants, “educational programs will return
and benefit society as a whole. #