From Inmates to Graduates: The Prison-to-College Pipeline

Inside the NYC-based program that gives the incarcerated a second chance.

One night in 1992, during a botched robbery, Domingo Borges, a 17-year-old high school dropout, killed a man. “It was never my intention,” Borges says now. “I was high, and I panicked. There are no words to describe how awful I feel.” He spent the next 23½ years in prison for homicide. When he was arrested, he barely spoke English.

Two years after his release, Borges, now 43, is married, has an infant daughter, works in construction full time, and has a year at LaGuardia Community College with a 3.7 GPA under his belt. He’s just been accepted to John Jay College of Criminal Justice, one of the country’s top schools of its kind, where he plans to work toward a BA. He hopes one day to go to law school. “I make healing and change an integral part of my existence,” he says. “Everyone I hurt deserves nothing less.”

Little of this, Borges says, would have been possible without the Prison-to-College Pipeline, an innovative reentry program that helps incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men in New York City pursue higher education. The Pipeline was started in 2011 by Baz Dreisinger, an outspoken prison-reform advocate and English professor at John Jay. After hundreds of prison college programs were gutted amid budget cuts and the tough-on-crime crackdown of the 1990s, Dreisinger says, there was a real need in New York prisons.

The Pipeline enables male inmates with high school diplomas or GEDs who are eligible for release within five years to earn college credits through classes taught by John Jay professors at Otisville Correctional Facility. Its innovation is the pipeline model, which ensures continuity after the men are released. Those who maintain passing grades while in prison are guaranteed admission to the City University of New York system, where they’re provided with mentors and academic advisers. To date, of the Pipeline’s 80 students, 30 have been released and 15 have enrolled at CUNY.

According to a 2013 study by the RAND Corp., participation in a correctional-education program reduces the chances of recidivism by 43 percent. “We need to recognize that many of the people in the penal system will come home,” Dreisinger says. “The question is, what do we want them to be doing when they do?” Reducing recidivism through education, she says, is a no-brainer. “But on a deeper level, access to education is a civil rights issue. We call the communities our students often come from ‘the million-dollar blocks’: We’re spending millions of dollars to incarcerate instead of providing social services and education.”

As Borges says, perhaps more than the classes on Plato and Machiavelli and Supreme Court dicta, “Pipeline made me feel like if I worked hard, I had a real shot.” johnjaypri.org