Two ex-inmates are trying to bring higher education to the incarcerated, one maximum security facility at a time
This article originally appeared on The Crime Report, the nation’s largest criminal justice news source.
At the height of the tough-on-crime era in the mid-1990s, prisoners in New York State seeking access to college-level courses were dealt a one-two punch that seemed to deliver a crushing blow to inmate higher education.
When then-President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, he revoked inmate access to federal Pell grants. In 1995, New York Governor George Pataki followed suit, eliminating Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) funding for prisoners in the state.
For Kathy Boudin, at the time an inmate of the maximum security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, it seemed like college programs “disappeared overnight.”
“When college was removed, instead of having a line of people walking to school, we had people sitting up in the day rooms playing cards, playing dominoes, getting in fights,” said Boudin, now the director of the Columbia University School of Social Work’s Criminal Justice Initiative.
Boudin — a former member of the counterrevolutionary group Weather Underground who served 22 years for her role in an armored truck heist that left three dead — and other inmates were determined to complement the prison’s GED program with a college education.
After the program’s launch in 1997, similar initiatives were started by New York’s Sing Sing prison and Bard College. Their successful struggle ultimately brought college back to a dozen prisons throughout New York, and helped form the backbone of a decade’s worth of inmate education advocacy. Today, there are programs that bring college to prison in half a dozen states.
Boudin and Cheryl Wilkins, also a former inmate at Bedford Hills and the Criminal Justice Initiative’s Associate Director, spoke to a group of graduate students and faculty at New York University on Wednesday night about their experiences creating an inmate college program after the Pell and TAP grants were revoked.
From the start, it was apparent that their movement would have its detractors.
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