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Rev. Vivian Nixon To fix communities devastated by mass incarceration, let's go back to school

Our program for formerly incarcerated women is a model for improving graduation rates for non-traditional students.

Female inmates graduate from high school in prison in Gainesville, Georgia on July 23, 2015.Melanie Stetson Freeman / Christian Science Monitor file
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Community colleges of the City University of New York have a low average graduation rate: only 23 percent of students earn an associate’s degree within 4 years. This is not uncommon for students who must juggle work, school and family responsibilities, or who don’t have the skillset to succeed in a college environment.

The problem is that the students stereotyped as least likely to graduate — like formerly incarcerated women — are usually those whose lives would be most changed by higher education.

But a program offering strong, holistic support for students from underserved communities has proven one key to success. Since its 2000 founding, College and Community Fellowship students have earned 332 college degrees, including one J.D. and one Ph.D.

If we treated formerly incarcerated women as high-potential instead of high-risk, our society would reap the benefits of their success.

I know the program works because I am a CCF graduate. When I was released from prison in 2001, CCF was the first place I called. I earned my degree in nonprofit management, and worked my way up through the ranks to my current position as executive director. I received resources and support from CCF when I needed them, and the space to grow to my current professional level.

There are thousands of women with similar histories who are just as capable of impressive careers, but America’s “justice” system blocks their pathways to success. If we treated women like those in CCF as high-potential instead of high-risk, our society would reap the benefits of their success.

Many talk about wanting to prove that they are not the sum of their worst actions. “The goal,” one student explained, “is to be looked at for something other than your biggest mistake.”

Students working through CCF — all adult women with criminal convictions — graduate at an average rate of 62 percent, with some classes as high as 93 percent (higher levels than typical public college students). Many continue through graduate school.

America’s mass incarceration system has disproportionately affected communities of color. Education, though, has the power to transform these communities.

For our students, a college education means a stable future for themselves and their families: As of 2017, 83.3 percent of our students live at or below 200 percent of the national poverty level. By earning a college degree, they have a far stronger opportunity to obtain meaningful employment that could elevate them to the middle class and beyond. Earning a college degree, according to a 2011 American Journal of Public Health study, also leads to better mid-life health outcomes: College graduates report fewer symptoms of depression as adults, and are more likely to have jobs that include benefits like high-quality health care. (Plus, people with college degrees are more likely to vote and have higher rates of civic engagement.)

Most CCF students are also women of color, because Latino populations are incarcerated at 1.5 times the rate of white Americans, and black Americans are incarcerated at a whopping eight times the rate of whites; our student population reflects overall prison demographics. Less known is the astronomical rate at which incarceration of women has increased over the past 20 years: It has risen over 700 percent from 1990 to 2014 — and most of these women have high rates of past trauma and abuse.

America’s mass incarceration system has disproportionately affected communities of color, creating economically unstable neighborhoods and generational poverty. Education, though, has the power to transform these communities, because people with a post-secondary degree are far less likely to be pulled back into the criminal justice system. Consider that, in New York State, 27 percent of formerly incarcerated women return to prison within three years of their release. At CCF, however, less than 1 percent of our students have returned to prison over the last 17 years.

What is most stunning about our results is how many students are eager to give back to a society that has so cruelly labeled and shunned them for most of their lives.

Yet it’s about much more than earning a diploma. We address students’ myriad needs with a strong network: After graduation, our students remain in close contact, and continue to attend our events and meetings. They know that they can continue to rely on CCF for guidance and community, long after graduation day.

Our results show it is imperative for formerly incarcerated women to have a network of peers who can provide support and guidance. It’s equally vital that this network is located off campus, where women aren’t afraid to “out” themselves as formerly incarcerated. Our fellows can come seek the resources they need without fear of repercussions or judgment from someone spotting them.

What is most stunning about our results is how many students are eager to give back to a society that has so cruelly labeled and shunned them for most of their lives. Our program promotes self-worth and giving back to underserved communities, and we find that the majority of our fellows major in social work or counseling and have a strong sense of civic responsibility.

degree gives a woman the social capital she needs to carve out a meaningful existence.

One student, for example, was denied employment due to her criminal record. CCF helped her find legal representation to fight that decision and she was eventually hired by the company. This inspired her to go to law school, and she now specializes in employment law.

There are thousands of stories like this, and all start with education. A degree gives a woman the social capital she needs to carve out a meaningful existence. It’s time we stop punishing people far after their prison sentences are over, and begin focusing on long-term investment in communities through education.

Reverend Vivian Nixon is the Executive Director of the College and Community Fellowship and an associate minister at Mt. Zion AMEC in New York City.

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