Jamamica hoping to replicate US professor’s Prison-to-College programme

BY VERNON DAVIDSON Executive editor publications davidsonv@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

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An American professor is now in Jamaica talking with officials to replicate a university programme she designed and implemented at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York for prisoners.

Dr Baz Dreisinger, who has been in Kingston since Sunday this week as a guest of the United States Embassy, told the Jamaica Observer Monday evening that discussions on establishing a version of her Prison-to-College Pipeline Programme have been "fantastic".


"From the moment I brought this up to the relevant parties — the University of the West Indies (UWI), the Embassy — there was so much interest in seeing this happen, and there are individuals who are really passionate about embracing education and the role education plays in giving people access to opportunities and promoting public safety. So it’s been very, very exciting," Dr Dreisinger said in an interview at the US ambassador’s residence shortly before addressing a reception in her honour.


The programme basically provides university education to inmates and forms a major part of her drive to have restorative justice replace mass incarceration.


Jamaica’s junior minister for national security, Senator Pearnel Charles Jr, who has responsibility for the correctional system, was among the people who met with Dreisinger on Monday.


Dreisinger, who founded the programme seven years ago and implemented it a year later, said it has been "hugely" successful so far.


"It has opened doors for people, it has changed lives, and also, what I think is important for here — and I spoke about this with minister Charles who I think really, really gets this — is that a big part of the programme is also around public perceptions and misconceptions of the justice system and who’s in it, and understanding what people in prison are capable of. That it’s a lot more than what people think, and if you set the bar high people can rise to that occasion, and it’s very, very powerful," she explained.


The programme, she said, currently has about 60 students, half of whom are now out of prison. Two-thirds of them are pursuing degrees. Last May the programme had its first graduate with a degree in criminal justice.


"We have four more graduating next month and a steady stream after that," Dreisinger told the Observer, adding that one of those about to graduate will receive a bachelor’s degree in philosohpy and will be applying to study law. She also said that the number of students is growing each year.


"We have an almost zero per cent recidivism rate," she said.


Asked how the programme would be funded locally, Dreisinger, who is working to replicate it internationally, said the details are being worked out. However, the likely formula would be a public/private sector mix.


"I think that one of the things that this benefits from, timing wise, is the fact that the issue of mass incarceration and the issue of prisons as a response to crime is at the forefront of discourse right now," she said.


"Certainly in the US I think it’s recognised as the civil rights issue of our time and the scenarios are really quite mirrored around the world, and so I think it’s a lot easier than it has been to find funding because there is an understanding that justice systems, and prisons in particular, are at the core of a society and you really don’t know a country until you have been inside its prisons, which is Mandela’s famous statement," added Dreisinger, who holds a PhD in English from Columbia University where she specialised in American and African-American studies. Her book Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World was published in 2016 and was heralded by a number of influential American media, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Public Radio.


There’s no start date yet for the programme locally as that is still being figured out.


"The key is to get an agreement," Dreisinger said. "We want to build something that is sustainable and that will be the start of a lasting relationship between two entities. I think a big part of the ideology of the programme is that institutions of higher learning, like UWI, like City University of New York John Jay College, have an obligation to do this work to be engaged in the process called corrections and how do we do that by building these kinds of partnerships."


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