Turning It Around: One Organization’s Mission to Support Women After Prison

One day, as she cooked rice and beans in the kitchen at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in upstate New York, Naquasia Pollard decided she did not want to be the same person anymore.

She was halfway through a 15-year sentence for robbery, but she signed up for college classes offered at the prison by Marymount Manhattan College.

“Education is something no one can take away from you,” Ms. Pollard said. Prison guards seemed more polite after she earned her degree. “If you have an education, the correction officers are intimidated by you.”

Ms. Pollard’s cabinet with family photos. Ivan Armando Flores/NYT Institute

Ms. Pollard earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology during her sentence.

Within a week of being released 17 months ago, she made plans to pursue a master’s degree in community leadership. In the meantime, she worked toward her professional certificate in community organizing and advocacy from the City University of New York.

She continued her transformation with the help of a recruiter at College and Community Fellowship, a nonprofit organization. Founded in 2001 by Barbara Martinsons, a teacher at Bedford Hills, the organization has helped more than 300 inmates and former inmates find the right school for their needs. They have earned various degrees, including doctorates and law degrees.

Wendy Romano, left, the Program Support and Events Coordinator at College and Community Fellowship, has met with nearly all the women who have come through the program since she started working there two years ago. Ivan Armando Flores/NYT Institute

Recruiters for the organization go to correctional facilities in the state to encourage women to take classes. After women leave prison, the organization provides MetroCards to students and refers them to substance abuse services and financial counseling if needed.

In April, the Manhattan District Attorney awarded the organization a grant of about $2 million to expand student services.

Financial support is particularly important for inmates because they are not eligible for Pell grants, the federal subsidies for students who have not earned a bachelor’s degree. Inmates have been barred from receiving the grants since 1994.

Ms. Romano adjusting a student’s tassel during a graduation photoshoot on May 17. Ivan Armando Flores/NYT Institute

With the ban on Pell grants, few inmates can afford the expense of a university education. With other financial support, Ms. Pollard paid only $5 per semester to take classes offered by The Marymount Program at Bedford Hills. The program is funded through an endowment from Doris Buffett, sister of Berkshire Hathaway’s chief executive, Warren Buffett.

Access to education improves a person’s odds of not returning to prison, according to a 2013 report by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit policy think tank. On average, nearly 68 percent of prisoners are re-arrested within three years of release, according to a 2018 report from the federal Justice Department. For women who have participated in College and Community Fellowship, the re-arrest rate is 3 percent.

Extensive one-on-one support has contributed to that low re-arrest rate. Wendy Romano, the program support and events coordinator at the organization, has met with nearly all the women who have come through the program since she started working there two years ago.

“I’m the first person they see, the first person they call,” she said. “If they don’t know what to do, we figure it out.”

Academic support is a key part of College and Community Fellowship’s work. On a recent day at the organization’s Morningside Heights office, Angela Diaz, the academic adviser, helped another former inmate navigate college applications. They discussed writing a statement of purpose, preparing for a standardized test, and tracking down former advisers and professors for reference letters.

Angela Diaz, right, the academic counselor at College and Community Fellowship, congratulating a student who earned a few degrees with the assistance of the nonprofit. Ivan Armando Flores/NYT Institute

Ms. Pollard giving her final class presentation on community organizing at the City University of New York School of Professional Studies on May 22. Ivan Armando Flores/NYT Institute

Beyond education, family ties can contribute to someone’s success at re-entry, along with stable housing, education and healthy friendships, according to Dr. Jeff Mellow, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Ms. Pollard knows the value of family ties. She said her mother has helped her get through prison and adjust to life outside. Her mother also raised Ms. Pollard’s daughter, now 15, who was born while Ms. Pollard was in jail awaiting trial.

Her Muslim faith also sustained her; she converted when she was 18, before her incarceration. She said her faith reminded her that she can overcome any obstacle. From the moment in the prison kitchen when she decided to change her life, Ms. Pollard has sought to remind other women that they, too, can succeed. She knows firsthand how hard it is to navigate post-prison life.

“When you come home from doing a significant amount of time you’re lost,” Ms. Pollard said. “How do you want them to be productive if you don’t give them the tools?”