Education, it has long been recognized, is an invaluable tool for empowerment, reducing recidivism rates, and making communities safer.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 made federal scholarships and loans available to incarcerated students, leading to the growth of college-in-prison programs in the United States. Within two decades of the law’s passage, 350 programs were thriving, providing postsecondary education to more than 27,000 incarcerated men and women nationwide—about nine percent of the total prison population at that time. As Senator Claiborne Pell, the federal grants’ namesake, said in 1994, “Education is our primary hope for rehabilitating prisoners. Diplomas are crime stoppers.” That very year, however, as part of the 1994 Crime Bill, incarcerated students were made ineligible for Pell. With states following the federal government’s lead, most of the country’s college-in-prison programs disappeared.
After two decades of retraction, college-in-prison is enjoying a revival of interest and institutional support. In New York alone, more than a dozen universities and colleges now offer courses in many of the state’s fifty-four correctional facilities. Disproportionately, however, these efforts are located downstate. As is true for most of the country’s prisoners, men and women incarcerated in upstate and Western New York remain underserved. The tailwinds are strong, but we have a long way to go.
Founded in 2015 with the support of the College and the School of Arts, Sciences & Engineering at the University of Rochester, the Rochester Education Justice Initiative provides higher educational opportunities for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in the Rochester area.
Initially known as the Rochester Prison Education Project, the program adopted its new name in 2019 as its mission broadened to incorporate efforts both in and outside of prison. In 2019, REJI partnered with Genesee Community College, located in Batavia, NY, to develop a degree-granting college program at Groveland Correctional Facility, a New York State prison for adult males. In 2019, twenty students were admitted to the first cohort at Groveland. In 2020, the student body will increase to forty students in two cohorts.
Beginning in 2020, REJI will also organize cohorts of formerly incarcerated students in the Rochester area, who will pursue further postsecondary educational opportunities, including associate, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees at local universities and colleges.
REJI maintains an ongoing partnership with the Cornell Prison Education Program, through which UR faculty and advanced graduate students have taught courses since 2015.
Since REJI's founding, University of Rochester faculty and graduate students have taught sixteen courses at four area correctional facilities: Groveland, Five Points, Auburn, and Albion. Courses have spanned a range of humanistic and STEM disciplines, including anthropology, art history, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy, and religious studies. On campus, meanwhile, REJI has sponsored a variety of public events with a variety of community partners, including the George Eastman Museum, the Gandhi Institute, the Susan B. Anthony Institute, and the Friends of Mt. Hope Cemetery.