How Alex Gives Back Through Education

How Alex Gives Back Through Education

Alex Mitchell, a newly hired GED Teacher at The Fortune Society, is hoping to leave the same impact with his students that education left on him. At age 16, he was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Though education was not something that he initially thought he would pursue while he was incarcerated, it became a defining aspect of how he spent his time in prison and, in his view, the reason he has had success since coming home.  

While Alex was incarcerated, access to college education was very limited. In his first few years, he was offered the opportunity to apply for a program that offered college credit but admits that, in the beginning, the goal of each day was just to make it to the next one. His goal was not to become a star college student, especially when his environment was discouraging him from believing in his potential.  

“It’s that constant idea of ‘you’re not good enough,” said Alex. “[You keep hearing it] from the judge, from the officers, from yourself. It’s extremely hard hearing some of the decisions that you’ve made that put you in places where you’re probably never going to have the same opportunities for freedom again.” 

When he was transferred to Eastern Correction Facility, he felt a shift in the atmosphere: he notes that corrections officers were kinder and there wasn’t as much violence. Here, he also heard about the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) – a program run by Bard College that enrolls incarcerated students in college courses. A conversation with a new friend cemented his interest in the program. “He was telling me, ‘The prison that you’re in now, this is what they promote. This is what they want. They want people to be in this college program because it changes the environment and the mood of the people you’re around,” Alex recounts.  

Alex then took the entrance exam and was accepted into the program. With access to higher education, Alex knew that a college degree would only increase his chances of finding employment once he was released. Throughout his time in the BPI, the program also provided him with another invaluable asset: a community of students and professors that believed in him. Initially, Alex recalls that he didn’t take his studies seriously and wanted to hang out with other classmates and friends. It wasn’t until one of his favorite professors warned him that he was not taking full advantage of this important opportunity that he became more focused on his studies and future.  

“And, you know, it was one of the realest moments I ever had,” said Alex. “[My professor said:] ‘I don’t know what you’re doing with yourself, but the potential you have is going down the drain because you’re not taking your life seriously. You’re not taking the things you have going for yourself seriously.’” 

Alex cites this talk as a pivotal moment in his education and life up to this day: [It] kind of hit me. Somebody that I had all this reverence for and appreciation for [was] sitting me down and talking to me…,” said Alex. “That was the moment I started saying “I’m going to start taking life in general seriously. I’m going to start doing everything as best as I can.” 

“Access to education, to me, is like the number one thing to really change your life around. Once you become aware, once you become informed and you have the power to critically analyze the world that you live in, you’re going to have a better chance at critically analyzing the decisions you make.”

He quickly saw this renewed dedication pay off and eventually graduated at the top of his class and was nominated as a class speaker at the commencement ceremonies. Recalling his family’s reaction to his graduation, his degree seemed to impact them just as much as it did himself. “It was an amazing feeling to have them crying for me, for something positive for the first time in my life,” he said. 

Beyond his desire to seek an education, the simple fact that someone believed he could be a better person was more than enough to motivate him to excel in school. Alex believes that education is a means of empowering oneself, and he imparts this value through his teaching. 

“Working for the marginalized communities and for those that have been just as impacted one way or another and trying to help them get their voices heard and help them get their feet back under them is extremely important to me,” Alex said. “And just being able to provide a service for them to get ahead, not just in their personal lives, but also to maneuver around a world that they find themselves stuck in: It’s an amazing feeling.”

Fortunately, Alex’s story is not an outlier among those who have had the chance to attend college in prison. Among BPI graduates, the recidivism rate drops to 4% from a staggering national rate of around 50%. Studies conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics across 30 states found that among 400,000 subjects that had recent involvement with the justice system, those that had participated in an education program were 43% less likely to return to prison.

While these programs are currently small in number, hope is on the horizon for college courses to be available in every New York State prison. The Government of New York State recently ended a 26-year ban on access to need-based Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grants for incarcerated students. The aim is that with a surge of public funding, these programs can expand without having to rely solely on private donations. 

Looking back on his college career, Alex hopes that a widespread presence of higher education in prison will pave the way for a better justice system.  

Now that TAP is back, it’s going to be more of a widely understood thing that you can get an education while inside,” said Alex. “And for the unfortunate new people that are arriving behind prison walls, that’s going to allow them to set the standard, to show ‘this is the way that we go about changing our lives.’”  

Every year Fortune provides over 4,000 instructional hours to participants continuing education, including GED preparation and college readiness courses. For more information on our education services, visit here. 

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