Frequently Asked Questions
The Rochester Education Justice Initiative (REJI), a program of the University of Rochester, fosters higher education opportunities for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals in the Rochester, New York, area. REJI is a cornerstone of UR’s evolving prison education and social justice advocacy programming.
There are clear and compelling socioeconomic, moral, and political reasons for promoting higher education in prison. First, education has been shown to effectively reduce recidivism and aid formerly incarcerated people in social reintegration. According to a recent study in New York State, college in prison leads to vastly improved outcomes for individuals “in the areas of health, civic engagement, and intergenerational poverty.” Second, education can be a sustaining force in the lives of men and women in prison, as intellectual pursuits foster for incarcerated students the prospect of a good life despite their present circumstances. Third, as American citizens, we are most complicit with the crisis of mass incarceration when we allow the barrier between the incarcerated and the free to stand unchallenged. By bridging boundaries and bringing incarcerated people into our institutional lives, we can end the dehumanizing invisibility upon which mass incarceration depends.
Rochester has historically been friendly terrain for social justice and civil rights movements. The onetime home of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, our city is known for being at the heart of campaigns for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery.
Rochester is also in a region with numerous prisons. Nine state and federal correctional facilities are within a ninety-minute drive of UR’s River Campus: Albion, Attica, Auburn, Five Points, Groveland, Orleans, Wende, Wyoming, and the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility. The impact and influence of these institutions extend into the city of Rochester and the cultural politics of our campus.
With its talented faculty and students and extensive resources, the University of Rochester is especially well suited to engage with the region’s large incarcerated and formerly incarcerated population and educate our community about the challenges incarcerated men and women face in prison and post-release.
Today, there are about two hundred higher education in prison programs nationwide, some operated by universities and others by non-profit organizations and academic consortia.
Regionally, REJI is in exceptional company. In New York State, several universities and colleges operate higher education in prison programs, including:
- Cornell University
- New York University
- Bard College
- Marymount Manhattan College
- Medaille College
- Columbia University
- CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice
- SUNY universities and community colleges, including Genesee Community College
About 1,400 incarcerated individuals are enrolled in college courses or degree programs in more than 30 of New York’s 44 prisons. Numerous programs in the state, including REJI, are active in the New York Consortium for Higher Education in Prison (NY-CHEP), a grassroots organization that “embodies the shared knowledge of these institutions and provides a platform for programs to help each other grow, share best practices, and advocate for students."
Outside of New York, several other Research I universities operate higher education in prison programs, including Georgetown University, Northwestern University, and The Ohio State University.
A national directory of higher education in programs may be found at the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison.
As federal and state legislation in the 1990s made incarcerated students ineligible for financial aid, most funding for college-in-prison programs in the United States in the past two decades has come from philanthropic organizations, individual donors, and universities.
Since 2017, REJI has received generous support from the University of Rochester School of Arts, Sciences & Engineering; the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation; the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation; and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
In 2020, incarcerated students once again became eligible for federal Pell grants (implementation is expected by the 2023–24 academic year), and in 2022, incarcerated students in New York once again became eligible for Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grants. These funds will help make college education more accessible to students at every correctional facility across the country and state.
Incarcerated individuals who hold a high school diploma or equivalent may apply for our college program at Attica or Groveland. Applicants must be “program eligible” with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) to enroll and participate. REJI does not discriminate based on the crime for which an applicant or student has been convicted. As civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson has said, “Each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
Nationally, incarcerated students seek a range of postsecondary degrees—certificates, associate’s, and bachelor’s—either through in-person instruction or correspondence. A small number of universities offer graduate degrees in prison.
Students in Rochester's partnership program with Genesee Community College at Attica and Groveland work toward an Associate of Science (A.S.) in Liberal Arts: General Studies, for which time-to-completion is about thirty months. Students enrolling with prior credit can complete the degree even sooner.
Do courses taught in prison by University of Rochester faculty and graduate students count for credit?
All courses are taught for college credit. REJI students earn credits from the University of Rochester as well as our institutional partner, SUNY Genesee Community College. REJI has also partnered with Nazareth College to grant students Nazareth credit for certain courses. Which institution grants credit can depend on the course subject, instructor, program site, and semester.
REJI also organizes non-credit-bearing workshops and special events, such as poetry readings, for students.
To eliminate as many barriers to higher education as possible, REJI courses and all related expenses, such as textbooks and school supplies, are free to incarcerated students.
University of Rochester faculty and advanced graduate students who are interested in teaching a course at a correctional facility, as well as undergraduates who are interested in serving as a teaching assistant, are strongly encouraged to submit a letter of intent on our get involved page.
REJI also organizes guest lectures, panel discussions, film screenings, and other events for the university and the local community. These events are free, and all are encouraged to attend.
REJI currently offers up to thirty courses per academic year in area correctional facilities. REJI instructors have taught courses across numerous liberal arts disciplines: anthropology, art history, composition, economics, history, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, and religious studies, to name a few.
REJI offers courses in five facilities:
- Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for adult males in Attica, NY
- Groveland Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison for adult males in Sonyea, NY
- Five Points Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for adult males in Romulus, NY
- Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for adult males in Auburn, NY
- Albion Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison for adult females in Albion, NY
REJI administers the programs at Attica and Groveland in partnership with SUNY Genesee Community College and collaborates with Cornell University at Five Points and Auburn and with Medaille College at Albion.
REJI is headquartered at the University of Rochester River Campus.
At this time, REJI compensates some instructors with a stipend; others teach courses "on load," i.e., as one of their regular teaching responsibilities.
All courses REJI offers are taught with the same rigor and academic expectations as in non-prison contexts. Incarcerated students undertake a similar workload to that of non-incarcerated students, including weekly readings from textbooks and supplementary texts and long-term research projects. Some take up to four courses per semester to fulfill degree requirements. Class sizes are under 20 students.
Courses are subject to the approval of the facility where they are taught. DOCCS administrators maintain discretion over the curricular materials used at their institutions.
Pedagogy in prison entails some limitations not typically encountered in other academic settings. For example, prisons do not have Internet access and often cannot accommodate audiovisual media or scientific equipment.
At this time, REJI does not accept donations of this kind. However, the American Library Association publishes a directory of organizations that do.