Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Education Behind Bars: Marymount Manhattan College Teams with Volunteers to Keep College Hopes Alive for Incarcerated Women

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Education Behind Bars: Marymount Manhattan College Teams with Volunteers to Keep College Hopes Alive for Incarcerated Women

Article excerpt

BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y.

The first hint comes when you read the titles of the books on Aileen Baumgartner's desk: Reporting Vietnam, Democracy in America, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Baumgartner's eyes sparkle as she describes her work. "This is a rigorous program," she says. "The women are very proud when they complete their degrees."

And they have reason to be--for Baumgartner is not describing the course of study at some top-flight women's college, but the college program (for which she is academic director) at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security women's prison located in a posh suburban hamlet about 45 minutes noah of New York City.

The rest of the nation may have responded to the education-vs.-incarceration debate by pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into prisons and corrections. Indeed, from 1977 to 1997, total state and local expenditures on corrections were about 2.5 times greater than all education spending during the same period, says a 2003 study by the Justice Policy Institute.

At Bedford Hills, by contrast, dedicated volunteers and enlightened officials have chosen to keep college hopes alive. For nearly a decade, they've kept up the struggle despite the long odds, despite the unfriendly political climate. And now the efforts appear to have paid off in the form of a powerful, new steward. In a move that virtually assures the long-term viability of the program, Marymount Manhattan College has asked for and received permission to incorporate college at Bedford Hills into its core programs. In effect, the maximum-security prison has become a satellite campus of the former girls institution that now serves a highly diverse population at its Manhattan campus.

Under the terms of the new relationship, women at Bedford Hills can continue to receive associate's and bachelor's and sometimes even master's degrees both at the prison and at the college when they're released. In addition, the college also assumes "back office" functions like registration, transcripts and academic credit and puts its considerable development resources to the all-important task of raising money to support the program.

Dr. Judson Shaver, president of Marymount Manhattan College, sees the move both as central to his school's mission and as a social responsibility.

"It ought to be a part of the mission of public higher education to provide programs for inmates. I don't think it should be optional it should be obligatory," he says. The fact that it's not--that it was actually forbidden when federal Pell Grants and state funds were eliminated in the "get tough on crime" craze of the mid-1990s--"is a low point in our recent social history. It's a scandal," Shaver says.

Dr. Dawn Weber, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the college, agrees. "Every time I'm there (at Bedford Hills) I'm surrounded by students who are stopping me, wanting to talk to me, wanting to thank me," she says. "And these are not students who are in the college program proper these are students who are aspiring to college, students who are still working on their GEDs.

"I'm at a distance, not in the classroom. But even for me it's impossible to miss how this program impacts women's lives," Weber adds.

The commitment to college at Bedford Hills has had a tangled history since 1994--but it's one that's well worth telling.

REFUSING TO GIVE UP

First of all, it's important to note that Bedford Hills had been offering degrees for some 15 years in partnership with Mercy College, another New York institution with roots in the education of women. Then came 1994, the year of President Clinton's landmark crime bill, which, among other "tough on crime" measures, eliminated Pell Grants for convicted felons, even though those grants represented only .06 percent of the more than $6 billion then in the program, says Dr. Jane Maher, a professor in the Nassau Community College basic writing program who also serves as director of the precollege program at Bedford Hills. …

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