As two professors who have taught in the prison system we can attest to the importance of college educational programs in New York State prisons. Recently there was controversy about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attempt to make available a college education for inmates that wanted to better their lives while incarcerated. Bronx Community College (BCC) professors have supported many inmates incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes while teaching in the Paralegal Studies Curriculum at Sing Sing and Arthur Kill Prisons during the 1980s and 1990s. Their contributions went well beyond teaching inmates in credit courses as you will note in this article!
Huge numbers of inmates were and are currently serving very long sentences required by the Rockefeller Drug Laws which are, even in the reformed version, the most severe in our country. One of those imprisoned was Anthony Papa who served 12 years of his15 years to Life sentence in Sing Sing prior to the teaching faculty efforts in helping to obtain his release. Along with many others in prison he earned his AAS degree in Paralegal Studies. With his determination and effort he also completed two other Baccalaureate and Master Degrees during his confinement which helped him become an excellent writer. His two books, “15 to Life” & “This Side of Freedom” provide us with information on his life during and after prison and gives keen insights into the culture of prisons.
In addition, Mr. Papa became an accomplished artist with his art work which was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He used his famous Self Portrait 15-to-Life to expand the public’s view of lost prisoner talents. Subsequently, supportive letters were written by several BCC Professors requesting executive clemency for him. As a result, New York Governor George Pataki released him from prison in 1997. For the last 20 years, Tony has dedicated his life to recovering the people he left behind as a passionate advocate for legal reform, to add rehabilitative programs for prisoner transition and raising prison environment awareness in the public arena.
The College is proud of its Paralegal Studies Curriculum which was developed and administered by Dr. Allen Wolk from Bronx Community College’s Social Sciences Department and later by Prof. Raymond Canals from the Business and Information Systems Department. Other professors who taught there were the two authors of this article, Martin Cohen, Frank Rivera ― Paralegal Studies, Franklin Moore ― Business and Information Systems Department, Kathleen Berger ― Social Sciences, and Carin Savage ― Institutional Advancement Grants Office. All of us know that Anthony is a good example of many other inmates that should also be released from prison. Paralegal majors frequently became the jailhouse lawyers, organizing briefs and statements for prisoners’ appeals. In addition, courses on health education, entrepreneurship and psychology helped educate the transition of men out of jail. In some instances, the released men were welcomed at BCC after their release and earned their degrees.
In summary, Bronx Community College “stepped up” to educate the inmates and later took action to obtain the release of Anthony Papa from his prison sentence which was a travesty of justice. The professors also tried to help other inmates sentenced for non-violent crimes to obtain their release, as well. The majority of people in U.S. jails are people of color and still there hoping to be released. It is interesting to note that President Obama is currently taking action to pardon inmates from federal prisons for the same reasons and challenging the contracts of private jail security companies.
In conclusion, we as professors did not limit our work to teaching. We invested our humanity and knowledge knowing that we were educating and enabling the students to cope with the stress of prison, as well as trying to prepare them for their reentry into society. However, there were many frustrating times in our teaching tenure at the prisons because as the students were leaving our classrooms, going back to their 6 X 9 jail cells envisioning freedom, we were going home as free people.