Bank Street at Bedford Hills: College Ed in Prison
In line with Bank Street’s commitment to diversity and its belief that everyone deserves a chance at a better life through education, in 1998 the College’s Division of Continuing Education (DCE) entered into the College Bound Consortium with nine other colleges to provide women in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, in Bedford, New York, with the opportunity for a college-level education. Fern Khan, DCE’s Dean, said, “I was so moved by the enthusiasm and commitment with which the inmates approached their educational objectives that I left an even stronger supporter of the program.” While DCE continues to help fund the College Bound Consortium, in 2002 it initiated a new, ninety-hour certificate-training program, coordinated by DCE’s Maureen Hornung: “Inmates as Caregivers Working with Children, Youth, and Families,” designed for women working in the Bedford Hills Children’s Center. The Caregiver Program consists of classroom instruction; advisement sessions to show the student how to integrate personal reflection, theory, and practice; and field work in the Children’s Center. The Program was designed to enrich and strengthen the caregivers’ understanding of children’s different developmental stages, teach them better childcare skills, enhance the Center’s activities, and help them interact with the incarcerated mothers and their children. The children in the Center range in age from newborn to eighteen months; the students, from twenty-two to seventy years. They represent a cross-section of ethnicities. Most of these women were jailed under the Rockefeller Drug Laws of the 1960s, which placed first-time offenders in jail for fifteen years to life. Bank Street staff, inmates who have previously taken the Program, and other volunteer personnel teach in the Program. With the certificate, the inmates have a readily salable skill that may help them earn a living once they are released. Last year, the full-semester program was funded through a donation from Joni and Nigel Andrews. In addition, thanks to gifts from Ken DeRegt and Alison Overseth, Maureen was able to add a mental health component to the program in the summer to provide counseling to inmates. Asked if she ever felt afraid to deal with incarcerated women, Maureen replied, “I am more afraid of the world outside than of these disenfranchised women. They are ideal students—hungry for knowledge—and have embraced our program with open arms and graciousness.” Maureen has continued to expand, revise, and augment programs in answer to requests by the inmates and staff, and also in response to the needs of Bedford Hills, itself. One course, in autobiographical and creative writing, improved the women’s literacy skills, encouraged them to set down their personal histories, and encouraged them to write children’s stories. They also learned to tell stories to children. A course on children’s literature educated the inmates in critiquing and evaluating children’s books. Their final project was to write a children’s book of their own. The students completing this course earned one graduate credit through Bank Street’s New Perspectives Program in the DCE. One woman said the Bank Street Programs helped her improve her parenting skills with her own children—from a distance. “I communicate better with them now. As for the Center, I have learned how to have meaningful conversations with children during crafts, games, and activities like puppet shows.” In 2005, Maureen combined the original childcare program and the literacy program into a thirteen-week, certificate-based curriculum, called “Writing From the Body,” designed to encourage inmates to express their emotions through writing. And, at the inmates’ request, a “Music, Dance, and Movement” class was offered, as well. It was very popular because the women were allowed to bring movement and dance into the classroom—in short, to have fun—and also were taught to use movement and dance as a form of self-expression and emotional release. “I felt so good. It let me express the ‘little girl’ inside me without my feeling embarrassed,” said one inmate.#
Elva Berger is the Assistant to the Dean of Continuing Education. Maureen Hornung is the Coordinator, Minority Fellows Program.