A ‘conservative vision’ for social change

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Joshua Dubler, who founded the University of Rochester’s prison education program in 2015, will be the first to say it’s far from a radical idea.

Against a backdrop of protest marches with cries to defund police departments and abolish prisons, college classes for incarcerated individuals sounds downright traditional. 

While Dubler places himself squarely in the abolition camp (his most recent book, “Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons,” with Vincent Lloyd, argues for a world without prisons), he’s also a pragmatist. He sees an opportunity in the current system to enable people to flourish.

“There are definitely prison abolitionists who would never do this kind of work,” Dubler says. “Some sense we’re shoring up the legitimacy of institutions. I understand that argument, but I don’t yield to it.”

It is the conservative nature of prison education programs that makes them possible in the current system: They have become attractive funding targets for established universities and foundations, says Dubler, who is faculty director of the initiative, now known as Rochester Education Justice Initiative. He is an associate professor in the religion and classics department.

Joshua Dubler
(Photo by Brandon Vick/UR)

“It’s quite conservative what we’re doing. We’re empowering a small subset of the prison population to ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps.’ It’s not radical work. It’s a fairly conservative vision for social change.”

It’s an approach that has caught the attention of the Mellon Foundation. The foundation recently awarded a three-year, $1 million grant to the university, allowing REJI to:

■ expand an associate degree-granting program at Groveland Correctional Facility, recently established with Genesee Community College;

■ add upper-level courses to GCC’s existing program at Attica Correctional Facility;

■ support re-entry for formerly incarcerated people with educational opportunities at UR and other area colleges;

■ establish a Justice Fellows program at UR for formerly incarcerated students; and

■ develop the Monroe County prison-to-college pipeline, a consortium of area colleges, to further grow academic offerings.

A half-dozen prisons lie within a 90-minute drive of the university, Dubler notes. REJI serves as a network of instructors from UR and other institutions who teach courses for credit at some of these prisons. Groveland is the centerpiece of the initiative, with three instructors teaching remote classes there this summer. It is supported by a $107,500 grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation that allowed REJI to bring on full-time staff. 

REJI instructors also teach at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus through the Cornell Prison Education Project and in Medaille College’s program at Albion Correctional Facility. Edward Wiltse, a professor at Nazareth College and a REJI instructor, has been deeply involved in the work at Medaille. REJI also has taught at Auburn Correctional Facility and will soon begin teaching at Attica.

Since 2015, the initiative has taught 21 courses in area prisons. Seventeen students at Groveland are taking classes now. 

From a single nonmatriculated class to the final two years of a bachelor’s degree, REJI works with people who are or were in prison who want to take college classes. Precious Bedell, assistant director of community outreach, helps potential students decide what makes sense for them. Bedell is working with a young man who just received a financial aid package that will cover most of his tuition for two years to complete a bachelor’s degree at UR. He has already earned an associate’s degree through Cornell’s program at Cayuga Community College. 

“He’s a very wonderful young man and has his priorities straight and is already motivated,” Bedell says.

Some students haven’t studied in a while. Bedell helps them enroll in precollege courses at Monroe Community College, and she connects them to financial aid and other supports the school offers.

Bedell also is a guide through the realities of re-entry: employment barriers, relationships with parole officers, and involvement in grassroots criminal justice organizations.  

REJI instructor Kristin Doughty teaches a class at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus.
(Photo courtesy of Rochester Education Justice Initiative at the University of Rochester)

Dubler says while the initiative is on its face an education program, the long-term goal is social change. A major component of this is to welcome formerly incarcerated people into the university community. Bedell, once incarcerated herself, is working on an immediate goal to bring together a cohort of four students at UR or another area institution this fall. 

The intention is to start a movement toward integrating the voices and experiences of students who have been in prison into campus conversations about what social change might look like, with everyone learning from each other.

“Then the trajectory is as open-ended as human beings are open-ended,” Dubler says. “With conventional students, with our incarcerated students, with formerly incarcerated, with instructors, you’re fostering a series of experiences and you’re fostering a community. Where that goes is up to the people in the community.

“A lot of us at the university are trying to make it more responsible and more accountable to the community. We need to change our town and our county and our region in really dramatic ways if we’re going to survive. We hope to be part of that.”

Dubler came to the university in 2012 from Pennsylvania, where he taught classes at Graterford State Correctional Institution. His book, “Down in the Chapel,” relates that experience. At Rochester, he immediately saw a dearth of such programs in Western New York and sensed an opportunity.

“As a private (top-tier research) university in a town with so many prisons around it, in a moment in which foundations were beginning to invest in prison education, it seemed like the perfect circumstance to build that sort of thing,” he says.

More than a dozen colleges provide education in many of New York’s 52 correctional facilities; UR is the anchor institution in Western New York.

“There are so many programs in New York,” says Eitan Freedenberg, assistant director of programming. “In our neck of the woods, the U of R is really the only way to get involved in this work, so people are definitely looking for us if they’re interested in this work.”

The Mellon grant starts in July. Among other things, it will allow UR to expand its network of educators at area colleges and help them grow the programs on their own campuses.

“In the same way that Cornell led us along and showed us the steps we had to take to get substantive university commitment, which then attracts foundation funding, we’re hoping to work with other institutions to help them along,” Dubler says.

The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but a quarter of the world’s incarcerated people. Enabling education for people who are or have been in prison—and creating a community where they can contribute and others can learn from them—will build a new generation with fresh ideas for social reform, he says.

“We need a moral imagination. There’s a reason why the kids are rising up. We’re going to need radical transformational change if we’re going to survive. I’m enthusiastic about being a part of that,” Dubler says. “These are very modest steps. It’s not at all radical. But the hope is that by fostering experiences and encounters and building communities it becomes a political agent, a collective political agent for change.”

Sally Parker is Rochester Beacon senior editor.

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