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Reversing the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Building College Pathways From Rikers Island

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We know from data and personal experience that expanding college access and supports is a cost-effective recidivism reduction and public safety strategy that will foster the transformation of entire communities. In August, the RAND Corporation published a meta-analysis of 30 years of research on correctional education in the U.S., showing that inmates who participate in education programs are 43% less likely to recidivate than inmates who do not and post-release employment was 13% higher for those who had participated in education while incarcerated. Education opportunities and supports in criminal justice and reentry settings, often known as "reentry education," and postsecondary reentry education in particular is a powerful poverty reduction and justice reinvestment approach that addresses historic injustices within both the criminal justice and education systems. The New York Reentry Education Network (NYREN) is a network of community-based reentry service providers that partner with government agencies and academic institutions in New York City to center education in reentry and mobilize for systems change, including expanding college access to individuals involved in the criminal justice system.

College Pathways from Rikers Island, a 16-session college prep workshop at Rikers,is an outgrowth of NYREN. As a coalition of individuals in community-based organizations, government agencies, and academic institutions, NYREN collaborates and focuses public attention and resources on the intersection of education and criminal justice, to harness the power of education to transform the lives of individuals with criminal justice system involvement, improve public safety, and strengthen New York City families and communities. College Pathways was born when the 2013 cohort of NYC Education Pioneer Analyst Fellows connected with NYREN seeking to create an education-based project on Rikers (the NYC jail complex, where over 10,000 individuals are incarcerated daily). The Fellows partnered with the College Initiative (CI) and the Educational Services Unit of the NYC Department of Correction (both members of NYREN) to offer college prep in the city jails.

What they found was that lack of information and self-confidence are frequent barriers to college success for young men of color in the criminal justice system, who are often deterred by incomplete and inaccurate information about financial aid, admissions, and the benefits of a degree. College Pathways includes four components: College Readiness provides students with accurate information about what is required to succeed in college; Academic Prep helps students acclimate to the structured learning environment while preparing them for college placement exams; Community Impact encourages students to reflect on their new college knowledge and make policy proposals to increase college awareness in their communities (at Rikers or at home); and Transitions provides education-based discharge planning with direct referrals to programs that will support their continued college engagement upon their release. With these 4 components of college prep and a linkage to community-based support, College Pathways encourages young men at Rikers to see themselves as college material.

Building support systems to help people go from jail to college is a crucial project in any agenda to address the outcomes of young men of color in New York. According to Mayor Bloomberg's Young Men's Initiative , August 2011 press release, among 18-24 year olds, black and Latino men have a poverty rate 50 percent higher than white and Asian men, an unemployment rate 60 percent higher, and are twice as likely not to graduate from high school. The New York City corrections system roughly reflects the national recidivism rate of 40% of individuals re-incarcerated within a year of their release. This is extremely costly to taxpayers, threatens the public safety of our city, and devastates the social and economic well-being of those families and already disadvantaged communities most negatively impacted by high concentrations of poverty.

On average, those in U.S. jails and prisons have lower rates of education than the general population. Especially combined with the stigma of a criminal record, lower educational credentials and limited or inconsistent job skills and experience, (which can be caused or exacerbated by incarceration) make it difficult for individuals to find life-sustaining employment upon release. This contributes to cyclical involvement with the criminal justice system. Thus, education is both a factor in and a solution to the high costs of mass incarceration and recidivism. The recent RAND Corporation study on correctional education found that every $1 invested in prison education reduces incarceration costs by $4 during the first three years after their release. We can expect similar impact by programs offering reentry services outside of jail and prison, as justice-involved individuals supported by community-based education programs experience reduced levels of re-arrest and re-incarceration.

Especially for young black and Latino men at Rikers, a pathway to college can offer a real alternative to recurring criminal justice system involvement. Formerly incarcerated people who have succeeded in college and have become mentors and leaders in their communities prove the value of postsecondary education to overcome the challenges associated with reentry and high recidivism. Higher education is one of the most personally and financially empowering ways to escape the system's revolving doors. College Initiative reports that less than 4% of their students recidivate after receiving a college degree, and that their students graduate faster than average CUNY students. Postsecondary education increases one's earning potential, expands employment opportunities, fosters individual growth and development, and encourages civic participation and leadership.

We believe that the impact of College Pathways on young men's college enrollment and recidivism will justify its future expansion in NYC jails. We plan to produce student-designed college promotion materials, and hope to partner with CUNY to install College Application Stations in Rikers jails. College Pathways hopes to work with the NYREN and the Education from the Inside Out Coalition on policy reform advocacy to increase access to higher education for people with criminal justice system involvement, as a cost-effective strategy for reducing incarceration, improving public safety, and reinvesting in communities most impacted by mass incarceration. In the long run, College Pathways hopes to help make Rikers Island an entry point for CUNY. When Rikers leads to college, the whole city will benefit.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, Ashoka Changemakers, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Young Men's Initiative in recognition of the "My Voice, Our City" competition, which aims to empower black and Latino young men ages 16-24. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about "My Voice, Our City", click here; about Ashoka Changemakers, click here; and about the Young Men's Initiative, click here.