Spotlight Blog Series on Women in Prison & Detention

V-Day’s Spotlight on Women in Prison, Detention Centers, and Formerly Incarcerated Women has been created in collaboration with Kathy Boudin and Cheryl Wilkins and formerly incarcerated women and activists working on prison reform and prison abolition. In this blog series you will hear from women whose lives have been profoundly impacted by the prison and detention system on issues as far ranging as: trauma and abuse; shackling; transgender experiences; dignity; health and mental health; experiences of long term inmates; the youth/school to prison pipeline; the experiences of mothers and children navigating the immigration system; higher education in prison; and reentry and technology.

Why College Education is So Important for Women in Prison

“We understand the public’s anger about crime and realize that prison is first and foremost a punishment for crime. But we believe that when we are able to work and earn a higher education degree while in prison, we are empowered to truly pay out debts to society by working toward repairing some of what has been broken… It is for all these reasons, and in the name of hope and redemption, that we ask you to help us rebuild a college program here at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.”[i]

Going to college is a dream that most Americans strive for. Higher education is valued as a benchmark of success in our society. Yet, many women who enter the prison system were not on a path that would secure them a place in the “American dream.” I was one of them.

Women are the fastest growing population of the prison system. This dramatic growth is tied to the social structure of race and class and gender, and the related problems such as absence of a decent education in poor communities, absence of jobs, violence against women, criminalization of women’s survival options in a context of poverty- all of these and more are factors that contribute to the growing numbers of women in prison.  People of color are also disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. [ii]

Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, most of the black actors I saw were portrayed as pimps, drug dealers, prostitutes, unwed welfare moms with a household full of kids, and uneducated, and the list goes on. Our desires for a better way of life for ourselves and our children are parallel to all who have children and were never incarcerated; we have the same wants as everyone else but we just didn’t realize our potential. Society bombarded us with so many negative stereotypes about who we were: poor, lazy, criminals, good for nothing and dumb.

While in prison, the existence of a college program helped us to hear a different narrative about ourselves; we were intelligent, worthy, capable and we could achieve anything if we applied ourselves with a bit of guidance and structure; we were women of substance and we started to hold onto these truths, and bit by bit, these truths became who we were.

Going to college was not easy, and during the first year of college I didn’t take it seriously; I thought to myself. Why even attend college? By the time I get out I’ll be too old; no one is going to hire a 70 year old “ex-offender.”  But soon, I realized that college was opening new doors for me, into worlds that I never knew. I became hungry for the knowledge and eager to learn.  I studied late into the nights and took advantage of every tutor that the college program had. I enrolled in five classes a week while doing my mandated prison programs. I was on fire for the knowledge I was gaining. I felt that this was the key that opened the locks that were created for me by a society that didn’t want to see me prosper or grow. The chains were broken to my mind. I was smart and I was getting an education. I understood history, sciences and the structures that shaped our society, and I felt proud to be able to engage in conversations about politics, history and our world.

The Closing Down of Colleges in Prisons

I was lucky I graduated from college in prison before 1994, because after that year college was not an option. In 1994, the government removed Pell funding from prisons by issuing the “tough on crime” Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The vast majority of colleges that were offering courses in prison stopped providing the chance to enroll. Due to the federal ban on receiving Pell grants while incarcerated, most of those serving time since then have not been able to take college courses while in prison. This was the beginning of a period that saw people in prison as simply bad individuals who didn’t deserve any help or support in changing their lives. In fact, even though it is known that education is a key to a person’s growth and capacity, our society invested in prisons instead of education.[iii] Between 1980 and 2013 there was increase in expenditures in k-12 education by only 107% compared to an increase in state and local “corrections” (prisons and jails) by 324%. [iv]

When people in prison lost their ability to go to college, throughout the country demoralization set in among incarcerated people. College had been a door through which people could walk and build new lives. At the maximum-security women’s prison in New York State, women mobilized to bring higher education back. Through a collaboration with the prison administration, the academic community outside the prison and the nearby community, they created a new model of a privately funded college program in prison, and by 1997 a new college program was up and running. Slowly, as research was being done, combined with advocacy about the importance of higher education in prisons – often led by formerly incarcerated people, more and more states began to get higher education back in prisons with different models.

The Obama administration took a step toward trying to restore Pell grants for those in prison with the Second Chance Pell pilot. The program has given over 12,000 incarcerated individuals across the nation the chance to use Pell grants toward college courses in prison.[v] In New York State, 22 colleges and universities – including Columbia, Bard, Cornell and Vassar – send professors behind prison walls every week. And New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (Governor) teamed up with Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance to divert $7.5 million in criminal forfeiture money to add at least 800 more students. “This is a public safety issue. I know that data supports my decisions and therefore, I think the citizens of the state should understand that this makes sense in terms of community safety,” Vance said. In California, in 2014, San Quentin was the only prison with college classes. By 2017 34 out of 35 state prisons had college programs. 4,500 people incarcerated have enrolled in college classes.[vi]

Higher Education and Recidivism

Two-thirds of women who go home will be rearrested within 5 years. Why in the world would people who have served their time risk returning to prison? There is a very simple answer. Most people in prison are released with no marketable job skills and educational levels that are so low they can only qualify for poverty level earnings. When released from prison, women are faced with the very real need to earn money, most have children to support, some require daycare and face the everyday challenges of looking for a job, having carfare, clothing, toiletries and food. The harsh reality is that there are very few jobs that are available to women returning from prison that will provide the ability to rebuild a life for themselves and their children. The most effective way to keep people out of prison once they leave is to provide the necessary jobs skills that will increase their marketability towards employers.

There is a correlation between recidivism rates of women who attend college classes while incarcerated as opposed to those who don’t. All education makes a difference:
Vocational training cut recidivism to approximately 30 percent. But an associate degree drops the rate to 13.7 percent. A bachelor’s degree reduces it to 5.6 percent. A master’s brings recidivism to 0 percent.[vii]

The Intergenerational Impact of Higher Education in Prison

Often times, pursuing a college degree starts with our parents instilling this idea that being prepared for the job markets of today and tomorrow requires getting a college degree and is tantamount to securing a better future. I don’t know of many parents who would not want a better future for their child, however, when life has thrown you a series of curve balls, thinking about a better future for your child seems unattainable

75% percent of the women who were incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility – where I was in prison – were mothers to school age children. As their level of education increased, so did their level of interest in their child’s education. The conversations in the visiting room as well as the telephone calls changed; the mother’s used this as an opportunity to become more involved in their homework, study habits, and college aspirations. On the other hand, the child became less ashamed of having an incarcerated mom, and instead, proud that their mom was using education as a vehicle to make their lives better. Dreams were made and the stigma of having an incarcerated mom was reduced. One child we know even compared her dad to Malcolm X.

We need to advocate for educational reform in prison. Education at every level makes a difference for people when they come home- from adult basic education, to high school degrees to vocational training. And there is still a need to bring opportunities for women in prison to a point that is equal to that for incarcerated men. But higher education, getting a college degree, makes a dramatic difference in the ability of women to rebuild their lives. The statistics are clear. The life stories from women are clear. Every prison system, from county to federal, should be involved in higher education. Politicians constantly talk about crime rates and getting tough on crime, yet isn’t it time that the paradigm changed? Let us start by getting involved with people who are incarcerated and give them the necessary tools to ensure a safer society for all of us. Not only will incarcerated individuals benefit, but so will their children:

I am a child of a mother who was formerly incarcerated. If my mother had been provided an opportunity to expand in knowledge and an academic career, even though in society she was labeled a “criminal”, I would have learned more than survival skills. She could have been an example of hard work and perseverance no matter her mistakes. Educating our women is important to our youth because mothers are a child’s main source of information. I believe we should be more persistent with education for all economic backgrounds, past law involvement, and women in general. Simply because of the significant role that women play in raising children and how that positive impact could raise the greatness of our nation. (nym)

By R.S.


[i] The Inmate Committee (199). Changing Minds The Impact of College in a Maximum-Security Prison. Collaborative Research by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York & Women in Prison at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (September 2001).