On a gloomy afternoon in March, undergraduate students sat silently in a room in the southeast wing of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, mesmerized by their guest speaker. As Juan Echevarria unfolded his story, the students began to ask questions:
“What has been the hardest thing?”
“Not talking to my daughter”
“Did you ever think it was unfair?”
“I thought it was fair all the time. I thought I was lucky.”
“What kept you going?”
Juan Echevarria, 38, is a case manager at Exodus Transitional Community Inc., an organization that helps former inmates re-enter society. He knows well their struggle: For the past 16 years, before he was released in May 2012, he had been incarcerated in maximum- and medium-security prisons throughout New York state—Sing Sing, Clinton, Eastern, Arthur Kill, and Otisville Correctional Facility.
When he was first sent to prison, back in 1999, “I was young, I didn’t really have a plan,” Echevarria told his audience. “But I was a student at LaGuardia college before incarceration, trying to get into that path where I am now. Just…I didn’t have the right direction back then.”
Education marked a turning point in his life “on the inside.” During his last year at Otisville, Echevarria took courses in English, anthropology, and psychology, with weekly readings and assignments. The program, sponsored by John Jay, was called “Prison-To-College Pipeline.” It aimed to help inmates earn credits towards their college degree and facilitate their employment and reentry into society. “The initiative tests a model for the vital role that public universities might play in using higher education to promote successful prisoner reentry and, by extension, generate safer and more robust communities,” as the college website puts it.
College courses in prison are not a new thing. About a dozen prisons in New York state offer classes, mostly sponsored by private funds. Early in February, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed legislation to finance college courses with public money, expanding the program to 10 more facilities, a move that would restore public money for this purpose that had been cut by former governor George Pataki back in 1995. Cuomo argued that the “recidivism rate is so much lower when you provide education in prison for an inmate”—a statement backed by a study conducted by THE RAND Corporation.
But Cuomo’s proposal generated harsh opposition: many criticized what they saw as the unfairness of offering free education to inmates while on the outside, so many families struggle to pay for college for their children. Ultimately the proposal was dismissed. But college courses continue in some prisons thanks to private money.
Echevarria is certainly grateful. When he first entered the prison, his days were slow and empty: a lot of talking, smoking, watching TV, lying down. “You wish time could just speed up,” he said. “But eventually work and studies overcome that feeling. You are not really concentrating on ‘How can I get out of here,’ but on ‘How can I do this much better.’”
The turning point was several courses he took in 2002 as part of a HIV program, aimed to increase awareness about the syndrome. Motivated to take the course by the loss of a dear friend, Echevarria enrolled in basic and advanced classes in immunology, pharmacology, and biology as they relate to HIV. He eventually was certified as an educator and started providing training on awareness and virus risks to several groups inside the penitentiary.
That experience was eye opening for Echevarria. When, in 2011, Baz Dreisinger, associate professor of English at John Jay College, walked into the Arthur Kill facility and announced a Prison-To-College Pipeline program, he didn’t hesitate. After he was transferred to Otisville facility (since Arthur Kill’s facility closed), he enrolled in the courses offered by the program, along with another 24 inmate-students.
“I called my girlfriend, I called my mom, I called anyone that I have on my phone list,” Echevarria said, remembering those moments of joy. “I was happy, kind of nervous, but I was excited for the most part. I love to learn, I love to study, and that was the chance to go back to the classroom in a real way.”
In Echevarria’s dorm, among 50 male inmates, three were enrolled in the courses. They would group in the library with other students from other dorms and study together. “When someone had a problem with homework we had a conversation,” he said, “share different ideas and go from there.” Echevarria studied for two semesters; classes were three hours a week. Once a month, students from John Jay visited the facility, had class with the inmates, discussed the reading together.
In 2012, he eventually won a prize for his essay, “Who Am I? An Analysis of Race Classification in America.” John Jay gives such awards to its top 25 students every year. Echevarria was the only inmate to be awarded.
He was also the first inmate, among those who participated to the pipeline program, to be released, in May 2012, after serving for 13 years and 10 months. That meant he couldn’t complete his degree while in prison, because of the early discharge. But he plans to stay on track.
The next step for Echevarria is to pass a math test, and then apply for John Jay College. The ultimate goal is to earn a five-year degree in cultural anthropology while still working evenings providing training and education in HIV prevention, as he did while in prison.
“Education kept my sanity, it gave me purpose,” he told the students, as he sat on the desk in the middle of their classroom, talking to the young audience in a calm voice. Next to him stood Cory Feldman, a PhD candidate, adjunct professor at the college, and a guests lecturer at the Prison-To-College Pipeline program. Feldman urged the students to ask questions and pushed them to deepen the conversation.
She strongly advocates for academic courses behind the bars. “Six years ago I said ‘I want to teach for John Jay College in prison,’ and they were like, ‘There is no such thing.’ ‘There will be,’ I replied.” And things have indeed been moving just in that direction at John Jay.
Feldman’s attention to the issue beganwhen she was 19 and was studying African-American poetry at University of Wisconsin. She was also volunteering as a supervisor at ARC House, a facility that offers residence to female offenders with a substance abuse problem in addition to their criminal conviction. Feldman was a night guard. She soon developed tight bonds with the inmates. “I would share with them things that were permissible, like movies, playing domino.” And her African-American poetry books and papers. “They all wanted to read that poems, stand up and read them.” Feldman saw how much education could elevate the life of a person in prison, bringing back to the surface a person’s identity and personality, often hidden under the stigma.
She was a graduate student at John Jay College when Baz Dreisinger—the professor who started the Pipeline program—approached her with the idea of classes in prison. The program started in 2011, and Feldman feels proud to be part of it. “I believe in my heart that education sets you free,” she said after mentioning a quote from Victor Hugo: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”
The adjunct professor would like to bring doctoral courses into the prisons, too, “with the same rigor and standard as any other college, so when you hold that degree, it means that regardless of what your past is, you are as much a critical thinker as anybody else.” That would change the culture of prison and the way people would think about people who have been incarcerated, Feldman said.