Jail4July 13, 2018 -- Twice a week from the beginning of July through the second week in August, students from Manhattan College in the Bronx share a classroom – and a class – with inmates at Westchester County Jail in Valhalla.

This is no seminar, or workshop, or TED Talk, this is the real deal: three full college credits, which may be applied towards a degree from Manhattan College or most any other liberal arts college.

The course, “Criminal Justice Ethics: Why We Punish,” is an elective in Manhattan College’s Religious Studies Department. It examines the topic of punishment through both a moral and theological lens. The course marries theological ethics and criminal justice history with what the professor calls "the phenomenon of crime and punishment."

Dr. Andrew Skotnicki is teaching the class and explained the course addresses the three big moral questions that form the underpinning of all debate in criminal justice: Why do we punish? Whom do we punish? And, how do we punish? To those venerable queries, the self-described “teacher, scholar and activist” recommends adding a fourth: Should we punish?

He said teaching in the jail comes down to suffering: “These people have suffered, and suffering changes things. There is a lot of suffering that has occurred in the men and women that I’ve served in various institutions. I’m in my first of many years here at Westchester, and what you see is a hunger. A sense that this is real and this is serious. And that if this door of opportunity is knocking, it may not knock again. So there is a sense of urgency and a sense of appreciation for the gift that the Department of Corrections in Westchester and Manhattan College have made available. It creates an atmosphere of gratitude and a serious academic pursuit.”

Since taking the job as First Deputy Commissioner, Westchester County Department of Correction in March, Louis Molina has made providing programs such as this among his primary goals. 

“We want to be able to provide our population with options that will help them be productive citizens when they return to communities in Westchester County,” Molina said.

And Commissioner Joe Spano explained they have 25 active programs in the jail –which is a lot for a jail.  Spano said: “This is about changing lives.  We do these programs because it aligns with our mission. Our mission to make sure that we do everything on the treatment and rehabilitation side to ensure that when a young woman or a young man reenters the community they are better prepared to be a productive member of that community.”

It’s no gamble. According to the Prison Studies Program at Harvard University, there is a direct and high correlation between the level of education attained by an inmate and his or her rate of recidivism. Put another way, the more you learn in prison, the less likely it is you’ll end up there again once you’ve done your time.

It is certainly not unusual for inmates to study college courses – prison annals are filled with anecdotes about offenders who earned their masters and doctorates while serving out one protracted sentence or another. What makes this jail/college collaboration unique is that the credits earned by these offenders aren’t going towards a diploma that will hang for decades on a jail cell wall. Instead, these credits are something they will be able to use relatively quickly – an inmate’s average length of stay at the Westchester Jail is far less than, say, Rikers Island, which also has a robust education program.

The Westchester program is distinct in other, more subtle but equally substantive, ways.  “It’s unique because we have college students coming up here to fit in the same classroom as offenders, and also significant in that it is both male and female offenders in the same room,” noted Justin Pruyne, Deputy Commissioner of the Westchester County Department of Correction. “Most of those state prison arrangements are all male, because they do not commingle prison populations.”

Manhattan College hopes the former offenders will continue their education on its campus when they get out, of course. That’s why each member of the jail population who successfully completes the course receives an admission letter entitling them to take four additional courses free of charge.

The cost of all this purposeful pondering and prisoner pedagogy to the public? Zero dollars. Manhattan College, through various funding mechanisms they have identified, are picking up the tuition for the incarcerated students.

Manhattan College President Dr. Brennan O'Donnell said: “This wasn’t a hard thing for me to get on board with. This is at the heart and soul of our mission. This is really what we were founded to do. To provide hope and a pathway to inclusion within society, knowing full well that education is the most important vehicle that we have for bettering our society.”

It’s also important that inmates who may have been out of circulation for a while get a refresher on what it takes to be a student.

“Vocational programming is important,” Molina said, “but we also think it is important for our young population here who are trying to get on the right path to have an opportunity to say, ‘I too can be a college student, and I can make better decisions professionally for my life.’"

Westchester County Executive George Latimer, who paid a visit to the program, sat down with the students to talk to them about philosophy and believing in themselves: “The biggest battle is the first battle, believing in yourself. You can get through whatever your moment is right now, and you can get to a better place. It isn’t us doing it for you, it’s you doing it for you. Whatever your demographics are and whatever your skin color is, something inside of you is greater.”