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The Prison-to-College Pipeline: ‘Enacting Our Duty as a Society’

The phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” describes the criminalization of student behavior, and how that approach has contributed to the problem of mass incarceration. John Jay College of Criminal Justice has been working to reverse that direction with an innovative program called Prison-to-College Pipeline (P2CP).

The P2CP program sends John Jay professors to teach at Otisville Correctional Facility, 75 miles from New York City. The program started in 2011 with just 14 students. Since then, dozens have taken P2CP courses in prison. Many of them have continued pursuing their education after getting out.

Theron Smith was in that first P2CP class of 14 incarcerated students. He’s since earned his associate’s degree from Hostos Community College, is working on his bachelor’s at John Jay, and hopes to earn a Ph.D. “I work full time, I have a family, I have a wife, I have a child, and I go to school full time,” said Smith. After nearly 23 years in prison, he added, “I don’t have time to rest now.”

Academically, P2CP students rank among CUNY’s “best and brightest,” said Professor Baz Dreisinger, the program’s founding academic director. Many of them, like Smith, also work or volunteer with at-risk populations. “These are individuals who want to go back into the community and have the tools to make the difference,” she said.

Another component of P2CP involves students from John Jay traveling to Otisville to “learn alongside their incarcerated peers,” Dreisinger said. This “direct experience” with incarcerated individuals in a “humanizing context” is especially valuable for students planning careers in policy, social work, and other aspects of the justice system.

John Jay is one of 30 colleges offering coursework in New York’s prisons, but together these schools serve just 3% of the state’s 47,000 inmates. “We can do better than that,” says Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay, which runs P2CP. Any expansion, though, would require more funding.

Dreisinger believes public opinion about incarceration is changing, with more people “talking openly about the fact that prisons do not work.” Education is an obvious alternative. “There’s a hashtag that a lot of us in the movement use: #EducationNotIncarceration and #SchoolsNotPrisons. And that sort of says it all,” she said.

That philosophy also aligns with CUNY’s mission. “We are CUNY and it is our duty to educate everyone who is eligible,” Dreisinger said. “That includes the prison population on a very basic level.” Many of those in prison “did not have access to higher education to begin with or quality education before that.” In a sense, she said, “we’re enacting our duty as a society to offer people the education that they should have gotten in the first place.”