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An Investment in Human FlourishingTo men and women incarcerated in western New York, a University-affiliated program offers higher education and a bridge to the outside world.By Karen McCally ’02 (PhD)
University of Rochester education justice initiative Precious BedellFLOURISHING: REJI’s Precious Bedell greets the once-incarcerated, now Yale Law School graduate Reginald Dwayne Betts before a fall 2019 event. Bedell, incarcerated in the 1980s and early 1990s, has won multiple awards for her work for the University and the community, including, in January 2022, the University’s Presidential Stronger as One Diversity Award in the category of Advocacy and Action. (Photo: J. Adam Fenster)

Meet the Justice Scholars

Part of the Rochester Education Justice Initiative, the Justice Scholars program is designed to recruit men and women leaving prison to compete for admission to local colleges and universities.
Read more.

Within a 90-minute drive from the River Campus—across the green fields and farmland on the road toward Buffalo, or to the south and east, through the rolling hills and vineyards of the Finger Lakes—there are nine state and federal prisons.

Mostly hidden away, accessible by traveling several miles down rural roads, and usually a few miles outside the nearest town, the facilities are typical of most of the 50 or so state and federal prisons housing roughly 40,000 men and women across New York state. And of the hundreds more state and federal prisons housing roughly 2.3 million people in the United States.

But critics of mass incarceration—a phrase rooted in the nation’s distinction as having the highest rates of imprisonment in the world—are finding ways “to whittle away at the distance and dehumanization on which mass incarceration depends.”

That’s how Joshua Dubler, an associate professor in the Department of Religion and Classics, puts it.

Dubler is founder and faculty director of the Rochester Education Justice Initiative. Known by its acronym REJI (“Reggie”), it’s one of about 200 college- or university-based programs in the country offering higher education to incarcerated men and women.

Established in 2015 with seed funding from the University, REJI has grown from a small operation offering four courses a year to incarcerated students in central and western New York, to a program in which 35 faculty members and graduate student instructors have taught more than 50 college courses to more than 200 incarcerated students in five correctional facilities.

For More Information

For more information about the Rochester Education Justice Initiative, visit

REJI is funded primarily through philanthropic and foundation support, which has been the norm since federal support for college-in-prison programs was effectively eliminated in 1994.

It began in collaboration with the Cornell Prison Education Program, a partnership between Cornell and SUNY Cayuga Community College funded principally by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Then REJI began to attract its own funding. It came first from the New York City–based Mother Cabrini Health Foundation and the Rochester-based Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation. Then, in 2020, REJI formed a partnership with SUNY Genesee Community College and won its own, $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, now the major source of funding for college- and university-affiliated prison education programs in the United States.

What Cornell was for central New York, Rochester now was for western New York: a hub of college-in-prison opportunities in an area dense with prisons.

At the School of Arts & Sciences, the academic home of the majority of REJI’s faculty, Dean Gloria Culver embraced the group and its mission.

“By serving one of our society’s most marginalized communities—and helping them to be a part of our learning experience and associated opportunities as well,” she said in 2020, REJI “is vital to the University’s mission to make the world ever better.”

University of Rochester education justice initiative prison map (Illustration: Michael Osadciw)

College in Prison: Key Dates

1965 Higher Education Act makes federal scholarships and loans available to incarcerated students, leading to the growth of college-in-prison programs in the United States.

1982 350 college-in-prison programs provide postsecondary education to approximately 27,000 men and women, nearly 10 percent of the prison population at that time. (Source: The Prison Project)

1994 The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (“crime bill”) amends the Higher Education Act to bar incarcerated people in state and federal prisons from receiving Pell Grants. Many states follow the federal government’s lead. The percentage of incarcerated people enrolled in college courses plummets.

1999 Cornell University begins to offer a small number of courses for credit, free of charge, to incarcerated people at Auburn Correctional Facility after several faculty members begin teaching there on a volunteer basis.

2010 The Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP) is established, offering 12 courses each semester taught by faculty and graduate students on a volunteer basis.

REJI Involvement Begins

2015 The Rochester Prison Education Project—since renamed the Rochester Education Justice Initiative (REJI)—is established with funding from Arts, Sciences & Engineering. REJI partners with the Cornell program as part of a single consortium serving incarcerated students in central and western New York.

2016 Through REJI, the University begins offering four courses annually in area correctional facilities.

2019 REJI partners with Genesee Community College to develop a degree-granting college program at Groveland Correctional Facility. Twenty students are admitted to the first cohort.

2020 The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awards REJI a three-year, $1 million grant to expand its existing programs and mission. New initiatives allow REJI to provide educational opportunity to formerly incarcerated men and women as well as to incarcerated people.

2021 With support from the Mellon Foundation grant, REJI begins offering courses to students at Attica Correctional Facility, building on the efforts of Genesee Community College.

Students Are “Zeroed In”

There’s a core group within REJI that’s been there from the very beginning.

In addition to Dubler, it includes Kristin Doughty, an associate professor of anthropology, and Alison Peterman, an associate professor of philosophy, who both teach with the program and serve as advisors to other REJI faculty members; Eitan Freedenberg ’20 (PhD), who started teaching for REJI when he was a graduate student in visual and cultural studies and now coordinates REJI’s programming; Ed Wiltse, a 20-plus year veteran of prison teaching and a professor of English at Nazareth College in the Rochester suburb of Pittsford; and Precious Bedell, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees while incarcerated in the 1980s and ’90s, has long worked on behalf of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, and is now in charge of REJI’s community outreach. (See “Meet the Justice Scholars,”.)

In various ways, faculty and graduate students who have taught with REJI describe students who are hungry for an opportunity most of them have never had. Doughty has taught Introduction to Cultural Anthropology at four separate facilities. Her classes include a lot of discussion, which, she says, have been “incredibly robust.” Her students have been careful and insightful readers—“willing to both adhere tightly to a close reading of the text and to make connections to the world around them in ways that are really meaningful.”

Marianne Kupin-Lisbin, a doctoral student in history at Rochester, began teaching with REJI in 2018 and now assists Freedenberg with programming. She’s engaged her incarcerated students in Western Civilization by having them think about how historical narratives are established and maintained. “I have them think about how an archive is created and how those sources translate into a narrative,” she says.

“What’s the narrative in the Western Civ textbook? Are people missing? Why are they missing?” At Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, she gave students a range of sources about some of those missing people. “I had them rewrite a portion of a chapter, writing them into the narrative,” she says. “They were amazed at what their work did to that narrative. To this day, I don’t think I’ve had a better pedagogical experience.”

Freedenberg says his students have been heavily invested in the program. In his introductory art history course at Five Points in 2017, the students were “zeroed in. Everyone had read the material twice.”

While REJI faculty teach in programs at five facilities, some of which are administered by Cornell’s program, REJI manages programs at two major sites in the University’s backyard: Groveland Correctional Facility, about 40 miles south of Rochester, and starting this past fall, Attica, between Rochester and Buffalo.

With Genesee Community College as its partner, REJI offers students at Groveland and Attica who have a GED or a high school diploma the chance to work toward an associate’s degree, while adding more advanced courses to the mix. While students at Attica and Groveland can’t earn a bachelor’s degree from Rochester through the program, Dubler hopes that REJI may eventually be able to offer that opportunity.

Like any students aiming for higher education, incarcerated men and women have to apply for admission to the program. Freedenberg, who oversees the process at Attica and Groveland, says applicants tend to be a self-selected group. But he emphasizes that, within certain parameters, admissions are “as open as possible.”

Those parameters include some practical considerations. For example, REJI looks at applicants’ release dates to make sure that they can complete at least one semester. In addition, successful applicants can’t have any disciplinary actions on their records.

Beyond those considerations, the selection process is largely based on written communication skills. “We do a lot of qualitative assessment of college readiness based on prospective students’ application essays,” Freedenberg says.

The process seems to work. Doughty stresses that the Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course she has taught at four facilities is equivalent to the course she teaches to undergraduates on the River Campus. “My expectations are basically the same,” she says. “I don’t make it any less rigorous.”

Occasionally Doughty might have to substitute a text. That’s because course syllabi undergo a media review by each facility’s programming or education staff. According to Freedenberg, who works with correctional staff in coordinating the reviews, “the assumption that they bring to review is that everything you provide them is probably okay, but they need to look for red flags.”

The COVID-19 pandemic brought some of the distinctions between traditional and prison classrooms into sharp relief. Incarcerated students have limited access to computers, no access to an open internet, and communicate electronically with those in the outside world through a secure messaging system. From March 2020 until the end of the following fall semester, course materials at Groveland took the form of paper packets. Freedenberg and Kupin-Lisbin acted as couriers, driving materials from instructors’ homes to the facility, collecting homework, transporting it back to instructors, and beginning the cycle again.

Throughout the pandemic, REJI communicated with students through the secure messaging system (and still does), and was able to set up a videoconferencing system at Groveland for spring 2021. In-person classes resumed last June.

While limited technology required painful sacrifices during much of the pandemic, in normal times, it can be advantageous, observes Freedenberg. During class there are no laptops, no opportunities to surf the internet, no cell phones to ring and buzz, and no Facebook and Snapchat alerts. “The students’ eyes are focused on you and their hands are on their pens,” says Freedenberg. They take notes on paper and write their papers in longhand. “When you are handwriting a paper, and you’re writing multiple drafts by hand longhand,” he adds, “there’s a level of commitment to the work that I just really admire.”

Meeting the Demand

Common sense suggests—and a 2018 meta-analysis by the Rand Corp. confirmed—that the whole society benefits when incarcerated men and women pursue education and training. By the measure of recidivism alone, the advantages are clear; once an incarcerated person participates in any form of education or training, their chance of returning to prison drops by roughly a third.

But the programs also have less easily quantifiable benefits that begin with the incarcerated themselves and extend through their families and social networks.

Rachel Sander serves as prison education director for the SUNY system. Prison education can lead to “a lasting family impact, as an incarcerated individual’s decision to attend college can help disrupt cycles of incarceration and inspire other family members to pursue their own academic endeavors,” she wrote in January in a SUNY blog post called “Why College in Prison Matters.”

Sander has helped build a network of college-in-prison programs that’s brought together groups like REJI and its counterpart at GCC. “The future of college-in-prison depends on strong local partnerships,” she says.

REJI will continue to work in that vein. “We’d like to expand our network,” says Dubler. “Wyoming [correctional facility], which is immediately adjacent to Attica, doesn’t have a program. Wende, which is in Alden, in Erie County, doesn’t have a program.”

Among the incarcerated population, the interest is likely to be there. A 2014 survey of the adult prison population in the US by the National Center for Education Statistics indicated that 70 percent of incarcerated adults reported interest in enrolling in an educational program—and more than a third of them in a college program. College-in-prison programs don’t come near meeting that demand, but there was good news late in 2020, when incarcerated men and women once again became eligible for Pell grants. “So there will be new revenue streams,” Dubler says.

But running a program entails far more than offering more courses to more students.

“There’s running the program, and then there’s running the program in a way that enables students to succeed,” he says. Pell grants will not cover all of the work REJI does outside the classroom to help students succeed. On the River Campus, for example, students have access to a team of professional advisors in the College Center for Academic Services; tutors from the Writing, Speaking, and Argument Program; and help in the form of skills workshops, study groups, and one-on-one tutoring arranged by the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. At REJI, the roles of all these offices fall mostly on the shoulders of Freedenberg and Kupin-Lisbin.

“Eitan and Marianne have three jobs,” Dubler says. They’re liaisons between REJI and correctional staff at multiple facilities; they perform the roles of academic counselors and deans of students at Attica and Groveland; and Freedenberg directs programs at both facilities.

College-in-prison programs are racing to play catch up.

“We’ve used incarceration as a way to solve our social problems,” Bedell says. Dubler believes there’s a correlation between a public disinvestment in education and social support and a public investment in prisons.

What if, he asks, we “invest instead in a set of institutions that enable human flourishing?”