By Emily Tai
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal quoted Brooklyn College Professor of Economics, Robert Cherry in arguing for the value of vocational certificate programs for incarcerated students. A 2003 study by the Bureau of Justice statistics found that 68% of the adults incarcerated in state prisons have not completed a high school diploma. Such individuals, Professor Cherry asserted in a Manhattan Institute position paper, would be better served by vocational programs that allowed them to master workplace skills than a traditional liberal arts college degree, as vocational education would give them a better shot at finding, and keeping, a job upon re-entry.
Professor Cherry’s interest in supporting vocational programs for incarcerated students—such as the program in Air Conditioning Maintenance which is currently offered on Riker’s Island, with participation from several CUNY faculty—may be contrasted with the “Prison to College Pipeline” program offered through the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Ranked among the nation’s top programs for re-entering students, the Prison to College Pipeline has matched the success levels of programs offered through private colleges and universities in New York State, such as the Bard Prison Initiative, in helping re-entering men and women complete four-year baccalaureate degrees, find employment, and rebuild their lives. As a research center, the Prisoner Reentry Institute has also become a national resource for faculty studying the challenges reentering students may face, including the special needs of re-entering women; the problem of carceral debt, which imposes significant financial burdens that can precipitate recidivism; and current exclusions imposed on re-entering men and women, including access to public housing.
A college education, while it may not address such practical issues directly, can transform individuals, with significant, positive implications for the interactions incarcerated students may have with family members, especially children, even before release. A traditional liberal arts education moreover helps re-entering students hone critical skills in self-advocacy that are often needed as formerly incarcerated men and women face a range of post-release difficulties. Recent books, such as Daniel Karpowitz’s College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration, have argued for this impact, noting that re-entering college graduates are incidentally far less likely to return to prison.
Perhaps the best solution is to make both a traditional liberal arts degree and vocational training available to incarcerated and re-entering students—just as we make a full range of educational options available to any CUNY student.
Emily S. Tai is a professor of History at Queensborough Community College who serves on the UFS Executive Committee, edits the UFS Blog, and Chairs the UFS Committee on Higher Education in the Prisons. She would like to thank Jay Weiser, Associate Professor of Law at Baruch College, a member of the UFS Executive Committee and UFS Legal Affairs Chair, and Professor Robert Cherry, for supplying some of the references included in this post.
The UFS Blog is a forum for CUNY Faculty, and welcomes the expression of all points of view.
Image credit: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain.