FORMER PRISONERS GET PERSONAL: Three former prisoners described to Education Secretary John B. King Jr. on Tuesday how college programs they participated in while incarcerated transformed their lives – even as post-prison life hasn’t been easy. “Second chances are possible. People really do need them,” said Jason Bell, now a student at Lake Michigan College. Bell entered prison at age 23, with just a fourth-grade level education.
– Bell and Devon Simmons, a former prisoner who recently graduated from CUNY Hostos Community College with honors , described getting a GED in prison but then facing years-long gaps without schooling while jailed – until college opportunities opened for them behind bars. Once out, Simmons said he was able to complete his degree despite getting shot right after his release from prison by someone “seeking prior revenge.” He credits support from the Prison-to-College Pipeline program through John Jay College (part of the City University of New York) with helping him. He’s now taking a screenwriting class at Columbia University. “I’m just taking it one day at a time,” Simmons said. “I’m honored to have a second chance because that doesn’t come to many.”
– Ivelisse “Bibi” Gilestra said participating in education programs in prison gave her a sense of community. Gilestra said she was no longer just a prison number, “I was student such and such.” Even as she’s now a Rutgers University student, she said “nobody leaves prison unaffected.” When she left, she said she was a “nomad” because she couldn’t live in her mother’s public housing unit because of her record. She’s had to take multiple low-paying jobs because she fails employer background checks.
– The three spoke at an event focused on the Education Department’s Second Chance Pell program, hosted by the Vera Institute of Justice and others. King told Morning Education afterward that college access behind bars changes the culture of a prison. “You can shift the culture within the prison as folks realize there are these educational opportunities available,” King said. Roughly 12,000 inmates are expected to participate in the experimental program, which will provide an estimated $30 million in Pell Grants to prisoners. Congressional Republicans have questioned the department’s authority to roll out the program, and whether it’s the best use of taxpayer dollars.
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