Green Haven Correctional Facility - When School and Society Fails

Stormville, New York in Dutchess County is about a two-hour drive from Brooklyn. On a beautiful fall day when I made the trip with a female colleague, Felicia Hirata of Baruch-CUNY, the leaves on hillside trees were just beginning to turn autumn colors. From a parking lot, facing west we saw the hills, trees, and leaves. But when we turned around, we saw an imposing fortress, a thirty-foot high wall with guard towers known as the Green Haven Correctional Facility. It is a maximum-security prison for men built toward the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Green Haven has about 2,100 inmates. Most were convicted of violent felonies when younger and sentenced to between 25 years and life in prison. Because it is located only eighty miles from New York City it is an easier prison for families and friends to visit. Inmates must earn a transfer to this facility through good behavior and maintain a clean record to stay.

I have taught classes at Rikers Island in New York City and written about the school-to-prison pipeline and Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in previous Huffington Posts, but this was my first visit to a maximum-security prison.

We were invited to Green Haven by its NAACP chapter to speak on the history of slavery in New York. About forty men, most over forty, attended. The group was overwhelmingly African American, although there were White and Latino participants. New York inmate population is 49.2 percent African American, 24 percent Hispanic, 24.1 percent white and 2.7 percent identify as other. No guards, only a counselor, were present during our talk but there was a sense of order, safety, and a commitment to learning in the room.

It took us over a half an hour to be processed into the prison so the meeting had started when we arrived. It began with a discussion about why members of the group felt education remained important to people on the inside, even people serving long prison sentences. A couple of the men stated that education helped them to feel free and human even while locked up in jail. One speaker said that as prison inmates they were "tucked away into a corner of obscurity" so outside society could forget about their existence. The group discussed the importance of people on the outside hearing about their experiences, the need to prepare for post-prison life, and college programs they would like to see in the prison. Some of the men already had college and even advanced degrees. They ran literacy and creative writing classes for the other inmates and were active in preparing legal appeals. There was much individual testimony, but no one claimed that they were not guilty or unjustly imprisoned.

A major complaint was that these men felt their ability to become educated was too restricted by the lack of federal and state programs for prison inmates, even though the United States has the highest prison population in the world. Most of their requests for educational opportunities were consistent with recommendations made by the Institute for Higher Education Policy in a 2011 report "Unlocking Potential: Results of a National Survey of Postsecondary Education in State Prisons."

Until the mid-1990s, access to college classes was much more available to prison inmates. However, President Clinton signed legislation that denied prisoners federal Pell grants they could use to pay college tuition expenses and New York State Governor George Pataki made prison inmates ineligible for New York's Tuition Assistance Program.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons currently has a program known as the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer (TRULINCS) that allows prisoners in the federal system access to e-mail and facilitates online education. However nearly all states prohibit Internet use by inmates. Limiting access to technology severely blocks educational opportunity. According to the 2013 "Handbook for Families and Friends of New York State DOCCS Offenders," prisoners in New York State Correctional Institutions do not have access to either email or the Internet, which locks them out of online college classes.

New York State now provides remedial programs such as preparation for high school equivalency exams and English language instruction but college degree programs are only available at selected facilities through privately funded partnerships with local colleges. The largest and one of the most successful is the Bard (College) Prison Initiative (BPI), which is part of the national Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison. However, BPI offers only 60 courses a semester enrolling about 275 male and female prisoners in six New York State prisons and there are over 50,000 men and women in New York State prisons.

In February 2014, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a new statewide initiative to give incarcerated individuals the opportunity to earn a college degree through state funded college classes at ten state prisons. The Governor's office estimated the college program would cost only $1 million, a tiny fraction of the corrections agency's operating budget of $2.8 billion. However six weeks later when the state budget was approved, Cuomo announced that the initiative had been dropped. Cuomo backed off even though a recent RAND Corporation found that inmates who participated in education programs while incarcerated had much lower odds of returning to prison and a Siena College poll found that 53 percent of voters supported the governor's proposal. The Rand study also documented the benefits of computer-assisted learning and showed that inmates who participated in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison after release than those who did not.

The euphemistically named Green Haven Correctional Facility that is not really designed to "correct" anybody is the last stop on the school-to-prison pipeline for most of these men. Many of them were warehoused in failing schools and crime-ridden housing projects until they were ready to be incarcerated. These men made bad decisions and they did very bad things when they were young, but they are no longer the men that they were.

They were thoughtful and intelligent during our discussions and should be treated as human being, not "tucked away into a corner of obscurity" with little hope for their rest of their lives. Andrew Cuomo, who is seeking reelection as Governor of New York and places political considerations above all else should be publicly chastised for offering the possibility of a higher education and then squashing it.

Although New York State prison inmates are denied Internet access, I hope they somehow get to read this. In my next post, I plan to expand on what I have previously written about how many inner city schools function like prisons as they prepare young people for the school-to-prison pipeline.