0 From Incarceration to the Classroom

From Incarceration to the Classroom

April 30, 2019

Bob is 57 years old, and, based on the way he walks into a room—with clear intention and confidence—you’d think he could be a retired Marine. He’s bald on purpose, stocky, and his posture suggests he knows a thing or two that you don’t. His shirt is unbuttoned a little too far, but it works for him. When he speaks, the words—tinged with a Yonkers accent—come tumbling out almost faster than he can organize them. He has so much to say and seemingly so little time.

But he has had plenty of time to think and read while serving time for multiple DWIs in multiple states, 13 or 14—he has lost count. Although he hasn’t had a drink in 12 years, he says, the consequences of his actions linger and agitate much longer.

In 2017, Bob turned to the promise of education to help him make a better future for himself.

Houghton University Buffalo: Hope House is one of the college’s three extension sites in the city. Adults who desire to re-enter society after serving sentences, who have a financial need and who have been referred through Peaceprints of WNY come to the small house—a former rectory—behind the former Holy Apostles Saints Peter and Paul Church on Smith Street. They live, work, study and dream of a day when they can go to work, earn a living and support their families and don’t have to answer to a parole officer. The associate’s degree they earn debt-free from Houghton University can make all the difference.

Bob participates in the program with eight other students, incarcerated for such crimes as burglary, larceny and attempted murder. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each weekday, they go to class in the “dungeon,” as they call it, in the basement of the home. They receive tutoring to support their studies, and they have built-in smoke breaks.

The students take liberal arts classes and learn from professors, just like on a regular college campus. The professor who teaches “Introduction to Christianity” used to lead Bible study groups at Wende Correctional Facility. The professor who teaches “Introduction to Psychology” used to run drug rehabilitation groups for returning citizens. The professor who teaches “Mathematics Survey” was the prison chaplain at Attica Correctional facility for more than 20 years. The professor who teaches “Introduction to Business” is the executive director of Peaceprints of WNY, the non-profit organization that partners with Houghton to run the college’s program at Hope House.

“They understand this population,” says Rebekah Kimble ’15, program coordinator, “and they work hard to make the course material relevant to the students.”

“The students are incredibly smart,” she says. “Many earned two or three GEDs while they were incarcerated.” But, she notes, sometimes they need help with things like revising papers. “We rely on tutors,” she says, noting that, this semester, a Ph.D. student at the University at Buffalo (UB) and a local pastor lend their knowledge.

Kimble teaches “American History Survey” and “Governing the City,” which is particularly relevant these days, considering that felons’ right to vote was restored last year. For many in the program, this year will be the first time since being released that they can participate in an election. The students at Hope House have benefitted by hearing about the process from elected officials who are special guests in class.

Besides teaching, Kimble, who earned a Master of Arts from UB in 2017, works many hours trying to raise private money (for most students, Pell and TAP grants cover the cost of tuition, textbooks, monthly bus passes, and a laptop computer), recruiting teachers, developing curriculum and marketing the program to the appropriate audiences. Friday is cooking day, and the students fill the kitchen on the first floor with the smells of their savory creations. Students cover the cost of housing, or it is paid for by the Department of Social Services.

Kimble, who stands about 5’4”, is a well-spoken and passionate proponent of the program, which began only two years ago. It is patterned after a similar program—Houghton University: Symphony Circle—which is held at First Presbyterian Church on Buffalo’s West Side and helps refugees obtain a college education.

Kimble isn’t above sharing her own struggles with her students. She says being transparent builds rapport and trust. “Working with returning citizens has helped me a lot. I’m not as introverted as I used to be.” And her passion for helping these men change their lives is evident when she talks about how education breaks the cycle of crime for so many—and how it’s also economically expedient.

“It costs the system about $60,000 a year to incarcerate someone,” she said. “It only costs about $10,000 to $12,000 a year to educate someone through our program.” To her—and many others—it just makes sense. She isn’t naïve about recidivism rates, which can be as high as 42 percent in New York. But she is full of optimism that, little by little, education can make a difference for many. And she is seeing this firsthand at Houghton’s Hope House.

Kimble is grateful for the partnership with Peaceprints of WNY, which provides referrals, a full-time social worker and collaboration on fundraising events. Most students come to Houghton’s Hope House via Bissonette House, a 120-day residence that helps equip returning citizens with skills to live outside of prison walls. The program relies solely on referrals from parole officers through the New York State Department of Community Corrections & Supervision, Erie County Parole Division Office.

“I’m thankful to have the opportunity to invest in a new group of Houghton University students,” says Kimble, “just as Houghton professors invested in me.” She says she has been inspired by Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy and has taken to heart that “no person is their worst mistake; everyone is deserving of grace and forgiveness.”

As for Bob, he has big plans after his Houghton graduation and after June, when parole ends. He thinks he might pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science, “but probably not in Buffalo.” He has a knack for computers and fixed a lot of them during his internship through Hope House at Mission Ignite. “[Houghton University Buffalo: Hope House] has given a new aspect to my life,” he says.

In May, three men, including Bob, from Cohort 1, will travel from Erie County to Houghton’s main campus in Allegany County to participate as the very first graduates of Houghton University Buffalo: Hope House. Against all odds—odds that said they could not see this thing through, that they could not fully grasp the magnitude of what an education can achieve, or that they are just “criminals”—these determined returning citizens will stretch out their hands to receive their diplomas and take a step toward a brighter future.