July 30th, 2015
I was sent to a New York State Prison in 1979 and I was released in 1993. During that time I traveled to eight medium and maximum-security facilities. If it were not for my access to Pell and TAP grants that funded my education, I can honestly tell you that I would probably be dead or back in prison today.
When I embarked on my education endeavor, I started by obtaining my GED, and shortly thereafter, I enrolled in Ulster Community College. I received my AA degree in 1988 and, by 1992, I received my BA from SUNY New Paltz University. I was accepted into a graduate program in 1992 while at Sing-Sing Correctional Facility and received a graduate degree in Theology from New York Theological Seminary.
I can honestly tell you that my college education opened an entire new world to me. I could now hold a conversation on just about any topic where once I could only talk about drugs, guns, and crimes. Thanks to my education, I was able to discuss history, politics, religion, social issues – the list goes on. I was no longer afraid to sit with intelligent individuals and I felt like I could share my ideas and aspirations.
Through my education, I developed a level of confidence that enabled me to believe that I could now do something positive with my life. I went from not knowing what I would do when I obtained parole to becoming a marketable individual capable of doing anything I wanted. School enabled me to seek meaningful employment and no longer concern myself with needing to commit a crime in order to provide for my family and myself. I could now go on a job interview with the skills and the intelligence needed not only to obtain the position, but to do the job well enough to succeed and compete with others for upward mobility.
Upon my release, I entered Adelphi University and obtained a Masters in Social Work with honors. I now work on Rikers Island as a Team Leader of discharge planners. Every day I see inmates who suffer from the lack of educational opportunities and access to TAP and Pell Grants. These individuals lack the marketability afforded by a college education that would enable them to succeed when they re-enter society. Many have a GED or High School Diploma, but they do not have access to college because they cannot afford it. I see a number of individuals who are intelligent and could, if given the opportunity I had, have a far better chance of staying out of prison.
So, if I were asked, “Does the lack of a Pell Grant hinder these individuals’ chances of making a positive transition into society?” my answer would be a resounding YES! It worked for me and I know many others who have succeeded as I am or who are doing better.
If researchers tested the effects of the availability of Pell Grants for incarcerated people, I believe you would see the difference access to education makes to incarcerated students in the quality of their work thereafter. You would find that most of these inmates would be involved with positive programs helping others to understand the value of a higher education; you would find that these inmates would get less into trouble; and you would find these individuals helping the family members who visit them to stay in or return to school. I was the first member of my family to obtain a college degree. Today, my youngest brother has a degree, my niece and nephews have bachelors degrees, and another one of my nephews has a PhD in Political Science and teaches at Hunter University., At home my oldest child graduated high school, joined the United States Marines, and is scheduled to leave this November. They all told me that knowing that I obtained my degree helped inspire them to do the same. That in itself is success by any measure. This is what you would find if and when we restore TAP and Pell Grants to incarcerated individuals
For the lawmakers who have the power to restore Pell Grant to incarcerated students, I say this – when you educate an inmate, you are also educating their family, friends and all those around them. You are not only serving them; you are serving society as a whole. An educated inmate is an individual who understands that there is another way to make a living, and who becomes a vessel for change. When you educate an individual, you unlock their untapped potential – let’s unlock the potential of incarcerated men and women, and set them on a path out of prison and toward success.
Andre Centeno, MSW, FDC
Team Leader/Discharge Planner