Turning the key to education to unleash the potential of women prisoners

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With going to college in prison, I was won over by what my mind could do. It allowed me to look to the future, open my mind, and change my perspective on what my life might look like on the outside.

During my prison term in the early 90s, access to education was the most powerful force that gave me hope. It made everything brighter. Everyone enrolled learned, helped others learn, and through this spark developed a deeper understanding and love for ourselves and the women around us.

I tried very hard to stay in the facility where the college had unlocked so many doors, but eventually I was transferred to another prison. This new facility was devoid of this opportunity, offering insane vocational training and jobs. Life without a university in prison was devastating. There was nothing to do. Thoughts raced through my head, “What am I going to do?” What will happen with my life?

With the power of education denied me, I joined the landscaping team. It was the only way to transport me outside the prison walls again. It was a dead end. We repainted the walls, planted and generally maintained the facility. Everything was used for the benefit of the prison. I had nothing left. Of course, I got certificates stamped by the Department of Corrections, credentials worthless on the outside.

I learned that men’s institutions offered hundreds of options for job training programs when we had three or four, at most, none of which would help us find jobs when we were released. It was then that I realized the inequalities of being a woman in prison; the whole system was built by and for men.

When I was released in 1991, I applied to college to complete the degree I started while in prison, but was forced to tick “Yes”where the request asked if I had a felony conviction. It was the end of the line. There were no follow-up questions, no interviews; I was rejected on the basis of a crime for which I had served my sentence.

Education would have allowed me to get back on my feet, but instead I landed in prison again in 2000. At that time, access to Pell scholarships and the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) had summer prohibits incarcerated personsIt was part of anti-crime policy in 1994 and 1995. The bans decimated access to college programs in prison.

After I was released this time, I made a commitment to myself to find a way to go to college. Eventually I found an associate’s degree program and finally got the chance to continue my education. The joy I felt when I accepted my degree was indescribable. I knew who I was, I knew the hardships it took for me to get there, and I knew I would be able to support myself and my loved ones.

Repeal the ban on TAP would create sustained funding that would allow more college programs in prison to thrive. Now it is a matter of luck, and a lesser chance for women, whether a person will end up in a facility with education. Other states have repealed their bans. New York is behind.

Now that New York has its first female governor, there is hope for a bill that has been introduced every year since 1999 to right this wrong. Governor Kathy Hochul can finally tackle the inequalities facing women incarcerated in New York City. Restoring the TAP for incarcerated people is a matter of equity for women and a moral imperative.

As a former incarcerated woman, mother and grandmother, I know firsthand that if incarcerated women had access to TAP, success would follow. They would have a better chance of finding employment upon release and of expanding access to opportunities to their families and their communities as a whole. It is common sense. If you educate people, they will be better able to support themselves and their loved ones.

Governor Hochul, education is the key. If you turn the key, you will unleash the extraordinary potential of every woman in New York City prisons.


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