For These Formerly Incarcerated Individuals, Graduation, College Degrees, and a New Life

By: Emily Harris and Jenna Tipaldo

“I’m extremely excited. Right now, I’m trying to get into a full type of social work to raise some funds. I want to do a book on my life story. But really my whole thing is I’m trying to start a nonprofit organization,” says Arielle Pierre when we first speak. Despite her criminal record, she is ambitious and optimistic about carving her career. She has reason to be: she just graduated with her college degree.

Arielle Pierre

This is a notable feat; it is statistically uncommon for incarcerated people in the United States to have also received any college education. According to a 2003 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on Educational and Correctional Populations (the most recent of its kind), only 11% of incarcerated individuals in state prisons and 24% in federal prisons have attended postsecondary school. Meanwhile, as of 2015, the general population stands at 59%. This year, however, Pierre and her two classmates beat the odds.

Pierre, 27, and classmates Johnny Perez, 39, and Felix Colon, 42, recently walked the stage to graduate from St. Francis College, a private institution in Brooklyn Heights. They make up the inaugural graduating class of the Post-Prison Program, which provides formerly incarcerated individuals an opportunity to receive a college education with financial support and mentorship. Program founder and co-director Professor Emily Horowitz beamed with pride as she raved about the hard work and dedication of her full-time students who also face the unique challenges of reintegrating into society after serving time in prison.

The Road to Re-Entry

When Pierre was a 17 year-old freshman at St. John’s University, her mother was arrested and sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. It was a shock. She soon dropped out of college and ended up in a 2 1/2 year-long abusive relationship. One night, Pierre explains, she went to hang out with some of her boyfriend’s friends who promised her and two other women thousands of dollars for their company. It turned out to be a sting. Pierre was found guilty and given a sentence of 12 months: “I felt like I had finally landed from jumping off a cliff. I really got to the lowest point. There was nowhere to go.” But an opportunity presented itself: one day, she received a call from her mother telling her that she knew of a way for Pierre to go back to school. “It’s gonna be a scholarship. It’s gonna be based on what you’ve been through.” She was talking about St. Francis College’s Post-Prison Program.

Johnny Perez

Just days after his daughter was born, Johnny Perez was arrested for a violent crime at 21 years old. Facing a maximum sentence of 25 years, Perez was devastated, “I had this sense of hopelessness, of feeling like I can’t do anything.” But Perez found opportunities in prison – through school. He started to earn college credits, which had a domino effect on his motivation, “The beautiful thing about education is that it’s like, the more you learn the more you realize how much you don’t know. And that realization of this fuels your want or need to know more. It became a thirst for information.” Perez started to think about life after prison and how he could set himself up for future success. “I worked in the law library and I got a legal research certificate. I had apprenticeships and a lot of administrative roles … I said, ‘I have to make sure I get some type of marketable skills, because what am I going to do when I get home?”

Unlike Perez, Felix Colon had a difficult time obtaining academic training while in prison. Arrested in 1997 on a violent charge, Colon started taking a variety of classes when he began his sentence. But soon after, “the college program was taken away,” Colon recalls, so he took advantage of vocational courses. Always “an avid reader,” Colon participated in a cell-study program and also obtained his paralegal certification. He is trained as a mechanic, a carpenter, and a welder. “In a machine shop I can fix everything and anything,” Colon smiles. During his time in prison, any and all education was an important resource to Colon: “[I wanted to] be able to better myself and put myself in a better position when I leave prison.”

Relearning to Live: A Rough Readjustment

While education created meaning and opportunity during their time away and afterwards, re-entry brought its own challenges. People with felony charges can face collateral sanctions, or restrictions, such as disqualification from jury duty and military service, prohibition from working government jobs for 5 years after release, and restrictions on child custody. Regarding parole, restrictions on voting rights were recently overturned in New York by Governor Cuomo but there are still restrictions on interactions with others with criminal records unless with permission from a parole officer, even at work. Furthermore, a criminal record is easily available to employers; convictions may even be listed on credit reports. Since it may be difficult for them to find opportunities in other fields, the Post-Prison Program students all study criminal justice, sociology, and social work.

For Perez, finding a job proved difficult despite his resume. “I went on 50, 60 job interviews where I’m sure I was the most qualified person in the room and I would not get the job,” Perez disclosed. Once they saw his criminal record, employers would rescind interest in his application: “The conversation would shift.” Perez also had difficulty volunteering because of his record. On top of this, while adjusting back to society after thirteen years, he had to work to catch up with technology and culture, and to rebuild his ability to connect with other people.

Felix Colon

In 2014, the year of his release, Colon heard about the Post-Prison Program, but he didn’t meet the criteria. He was persistent: he went to summer school, impressed his teachers, and qualified for St. Francis. Things were looking up. Colon started attending classes full-time. But he still needed money. Even with some skills, Colon says he applied to hundreds of jobs only to be continuously rejected. Eventually he landed a job in Staten Island, working 60 hours a week, and secured a second job driving a truck at night. His schedule was packed: “I don’t know how I did it, but each semester I did.” However, even when he found a job, there was still stigma. “It’s unspoken,” Colon explains. “They say that you did your time and they tell you that to your face. But the minute they see the [criminal record] papers they say ‘This is who you are.’”

Education is good for more than just improving the personal empowerment and employment of people with justice involvement. According to a 2009 report by the Nevada Department of Corrections and a 2010 article in the Journal of Correctional Education, recidivism rates among adults are demonstrably lower for people who are given educational opportunities during and/or after serving a prison sentence.

Pierre attributes her successful readjustment to society and pursuit of education to her support system of “strong family” and also her mentors and peers within the St. Francis College program. “I’ve never met people that didn’t know me that believed in me more than I believed in myself and could see that, you know, there’s a spark inside me,” Pierre explains. Colon and Perez also felt inspired and challenged by the program, disclosing that mentors such as Professor Emily Horowitz encouraged them to push themselves towards success.

Opportunity: Education Opens Doors

On May 17, 2018, at the Ford Amphitheater in Coney Island, Perez, Colon, and Pierre received their diplomas for Bachelor of Arts degrees in Criminal Justice and Sociology despite, or rather informed by, their pasts. As the first cohort to graduate from this program, they have inspired other students to strive for similar success. Together, they are living proof that education can create a pathway of opportunity to change your path.

Johnny Perez and Felix Colon

Education has given opportunity to not just Pierre, but to her mother as well. In addition to supporting Pierre’s education, her mother “pushed even herself” to get Master’s degree and a P.h.D. focusing on the inter-generational effects of incarceration. Pierre says she hopes to open a nonprofit program for adolescents that acts as an alternative to prison and also to pursue a Master of Social Work degree. Colon is grateful for his skills and support system, and looks forward to studying for the LSAT as he considers law school. “I got a nice little network of people that want me to succeed,” he says, including his daughter. Perez is currently employed as the Director of U.S. Prison programs at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. He believes “Education opens doors in so many different ways. You know for me although I was established in my career there was that credibility question.” Equipped with a newly minted degree, he hopes that his words are more respected. His achievements have also been a positive influence on his daughter, now 17, who attended his graduation. He recalls, “She was like, ‘Dad, you know I was on the fence about college. But seeing you graduate – I’m definitely going to college now.’ That right there is a highlight of the last five years.”