First 32 students graduate from prison education program

SARANAC LAKE — More than 30 students from correctional facilities across the region are the first class of graduates from North Country Community College’s Second Chance Pell program.

The Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, launched by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015, provides need-based Pell grants to people in state and federal prisons through partnerships with 65 colleges in 27 states.

NCCC is the only two-year college in the State University of New York system to offer Second Chance Pell, which allows non-violent inmates with less than five years left on their sentences to earn an associate’s degree.

The goal of the program is to improve their chances of finding employment upon release from prison.

Locally, Second Chance Pell is available to inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Ray Brook and three facilities run by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision: Adirondack Correctional Facility in Ray Brook, Bare Hill Correctional Facility in Malone and Franklin Correctional Facility in Malone.

Student recruitment began in the fall of 2016, and the first classes started in spring 2017. Enrollment in the program has ranged between 120 and 160 students.

Students are able to select from three associate degree programs offered by the college: liberal arts and sciences: humanities and social science, entrepreneurship management and individual studies. Approximately 30 faculty members from the college, including full-time and adjuncts, were involved in teaching at the prisons, according to Sarah Kilby, an associate professor of mathematics and the college’s Second Chance Pell director.

“The students come prepared,” she said. “They’ve read the textbooks. The discussions in class are very robust and involved. The students are very respectful to the faculty. They really appreciate the effort we put in to educating them.”

In addition to NCCC’s faculty, two academic coordinators were hired to facilitate communication between prison staff and the students, and to provide some basic student support such as tutoring and advising.

A total of 32 inmates graduated from the program in ceremonies held last month at FCI-Ray Brook and at Bare Hill Correctional.

The students wore caps and gowns, received certificates of completion (their diplomas will be issued in January) and they were congratulated by college leaders and state and federal prison officials. Each ceremony featured a commencement address by Sean Pica, executive director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, a nonprofit that provides college education, life skills and re-entry support to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women.

“They have accomplished a lot,” Kilby said, of the graduates. “They’ve shown as much commitment and effort as students on campus. Just seeing some of them start to see other futures for themselves, it’s been rewarding to be a part of this program.”

In a letter to Kilby, one of the graduates said the program changed his life.

“I think the only way I can ever pay you back is to prove I deserve the opportunities you have given me,” he wrote. “Rest assured that I will seize each one as I continue the journey you started me on.”

Kilby said a half dozen Second Chance Pell students who’ve been released from prison have applied to and in some cases have been accepted by other colleges, including Rochester Institute of Technology and New York University. Several have applied to a program at John Jay College in New York City that assists people after they have been released.

“We’ve been trying to connect them to that program, providing their transcripts and other information,” Kilby said. “The students are connecting with resources where they’re released that are going to help them be successful in the community.”

The Vera Institute of Justice is providing technical assistance to NCCC and the other participating colleges and corrections departments, helping to ensure that the Second Chance Pell programs are providing quality higher education both in prison and post release.

Second Chance Pell isn’t the only higher education option available to inmates in New York’s prisons; the state has partnerships with 19 colleges in its 29 correctional facilities.


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