This Former Inmate Is Fighting for Every Prisoner’s Right to a College Degree

After budget cuts gutted prison higher-ed programs, Cheryl Wilkins demanded the chance to learn behind bars. Now she’s making sure others get the same life-changing opportunity.

This Former Inmate Is Fighting for Every Prisoner’s Right to a College Degree

As Cheryl Wilkins accepted her college diploma, hundreds of women screamed her name and whooped with joy. They were so loud that Wilkins’ brother, sitting with his four-year-old daughter, couldn’t hear the girl cheering, “Auntie! Auntie!” Other family members were even more enthusiastic. When another woman’s name was called, her six-year-old daughter grabbed her hand and dragged her to the stage. “Come on Mama, get your degree!” Wilkins remembers the girl shouting. “Her daughter took the diploma and walked off the stage with it.”

Once the ceremony was over, the pictures taken and the food eaten, the mood turned tearful. Wilkins’ niece sobbed as her father led her away. “I want Auntie to come with us!” she cried. Other children screamed as family members pried them from their mothers’ arms. The visitors left through one exit and the women, many in tears, through another. The afternoon ended with all of the women being strip searched, the required practice after any contact with outsiders.

This was no ordinary college graduation. The ceremony took place at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York’s maximum-security prison for women. The graduates were all serving time and, despite the celebratory mood, prison rules remained firmly in place. Under their caps and gowns, they wore their green prison pants and white shirts to differentiate them from the outside guests. Family members could not snap pictures of their loved ones since prison regulations prohibit outside cameras. If a graduate wanted a photo to capture the day, she had to order and pay for photo tickets in advance. That day, women involved with the prison’s Click Click club took photos of beaming family members, including Wilkins and her family.

That afternoon, however bittersweet, transformed Wilkins’ life. But the day wouldn’t have been possible if she and a group of other women confined at Bedford hadn’t taken charge and brought the higher education program back to life after it had been cut several years earlier when the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act eliminated Pell grants for prisoners.

The process of reestablishing the college program – as well as participating in the program itself – made such an impact on Wilkins that she continued to fight for access to higher education, even after leaving prison. Now, Wilkins is the senior director of education and programs at Columbia University’s Center for Justice, bringing the issues of mass incarceration onto the Ivy League campus and into its curriculum.

Cheryl Wilkins in her office at Columbia School of Social Work.

Looking back, Wilkins never imagined that she’d end up at Columbia University. In 1997, the 34-year-old Wilkins, or “Missy” as her friends call her, arrived at Bedford on a ten-year sentence for armed robbery. By then, Wilkins had been out of school for ten years. She grew up in the South Bronx, where, she says, “the gangs, the violence, the drugs – they were not just in our neighborhoods, but they were in our schools and our school areas.”

Desperate to escape, Wilkins dropped out in eleventh grade, joined Job Corps and was sent to Cleveland, where she obtained her GED. When she returned to New York City, she enrolled in a for-profit college, a move that left her saddled with debt but no diploma. “After a few failed attempts at higher education, I got involved in street life,” she says. The street life led to being the getaway driver for two men who attempted a gunpoint robbery.

But the women at Bedford weren’t quietly accepting the cut. Shortly before Wilkins arrived, several women had approached Elaine Lord, Bedford’s superintendent at the time, about reinstating the college program. With her approval, they began trying to find colleges that would offer courses despite the lack of funding. They found a liaison and advocate in Thea Jackson, a volunteer with the prison’s children and parenting programs. Jackson approached her friend Regina Peruggi, then the president of Marymount Manhattan College. Peruggi was intrigued and so Jackson brought her – as well as members of her church and administrators of other colleges – to meet the women at Bedford.

Once Wilkins learned about these efforts, she says, “I jumped on board because it was an opportunity to transform my life.”

The reception desk at the Columbia School of Social Work.

But first she had to put in long hours of manual labor. The prison had designated a room for a college learning center, but it was filled with boxes upon boxes. Every afternoon, after their prison-assigned jobs, she and three other women sorted through and moved these boxes. Arlene, who had been imprisoned for thirteen years by that point, had graduated from Bedford’s previous college program before it was cut. Still, understanding the importance of higher education, she devoted her afternoons to the tedious tasks involved in creating the college center. The other two, both in their thirties, had never had a chance to pursue a higher education. Deborah, whom Wilkins describes as “good at English and writing,” had gotten married and become a mother shortly after high school. Tisha was always tinkering with the few items allowed inside the prison. She was the woman to go to if a radio or iron broke. “She’d take it apart and fix it,” Wilkins recalls.

Wilkins worked in the mess hall, which meant waking every morning at four a.m., hefting heavy pots and mopping floors for seven hours, then lifting boxes all afternoon. In the evenings, after the prison’s five p.m. dinner, the women returned to catalog the growing collection of books, which became the center’s academic library.

Planning meetings were held in the same room as parole board hearings, a room that looks like any other conference room. In the same room where countless women pled for a second chance at freedom, Wilkins and others met with college administrators and potential donors to argue the importance of college-in-prison programs. They shared their own stories, describing the systemic forces that had prevented and discouraged them from pursuing education on the outside. In the end, Marymount conferred the degree to the Bedford graduates; twelve other colleges donated faculty members, books and other materials for the College Bound program.

Meanwhile, word spread around the prison and excitement grew. “You couldn’t walk down a hall without someone asking, ‘When is it gonna happen?’” Wilkins recalls.

When College Bound began later that year, Wilkins was among the first to enroll. With the challenge of college-level work came the realization that, if they were to succeed, women needed to not only attend classes and fulfill the assignments, but also study – and study hard. Wilkins and her classmates formed study groups anywhere they could. It became a common sight to see women poring over books and quizzing each other with handmade flash cards at the round tables in the housing units, at the picnic tables in the prison’s yard, or even on the weight-lifting benches in the weight room. Even women who weren’t in the college program were enthused – and sometimes got involved. “People would go by and encourage the person who was learning,” Wilkins recalls. The desire to learn became infectious as women saw their friends and acquaintances spend hours learning multiplication tables and division. Any time that the woman being quizzed got up to use the bathroom, Wilkins recalls that another woman would quickly slide into her seat and demand, “Do me.”

“Just the college being there moved people,” Wilkins recalls. “It became the thing to do or strive for.” For many women, the college program pushed them to get their GEDs, or even to learn English so that they could pass their GEDs. Wilkins recalls Evelyn, a Latina woman who had failed the GED test three times because of her lack of English. She passed on her fourth attempts. She flew down the stairs from the GED office to the College Bound rooms, her long brown hair streaming behind her, waving her certificate and yelling, “I got it! I finally got it! Sign me up!” This victory lap – and the immediate demand to begin college classes – became a common occurrence in the prison’s education building.

Wilkins looks over notes from a faculty meeting at Columbia’s Center for Justice, a center co-founded by Wilkins and Kathy Boudin.

College also changed the nature of prison interactions. Wilkins also recalls that fewer fights and arguments erupted once college was reinstated. Those caught fighting were barred from attending college that semester – or longer. Few wanted to take that risk.

That didn’t mean there weren’t still conflicts. One day, Wilkins saw a woman, whom she described as “a known thief,” leaving her cell. She stopped and searched the woman. Knowing that her college attendance was on the line, once she ascertained that the woman had not stolen anything, she let her go. Had there not been a college program at stake, the two would have at least exchanged words and might have escalated to a physical altercation. But there was a college program – and Wilkins was keenly aware that any trouble she got into would threaten the program’s existence. “There were a lot of moments like that for folks who were in the college program,” she says. “You don’t want to do anything that jeopardizes that program.” Every college student felt the weight of that responsibility. “If we weren’t at our best, that program could be taken away.”

The following year, Wilkins was transferred to Bayview, a medium-security prison in Manhattan’s trendy and rapidly-gentrifying Chelsea neighborhood.

Bayview, which consisted of two adjoining buildings across from Chelsea Piers, had no college program. But Wilkins and several other women who had benefited from College Bound decided to ensure that Bayview’s women had a similar opportunity. The prison’s superintendent and at least one staff member supported their efforts, which allowed the women to push forward and establish a program through Bard College.

On May 14, 2009, Bayview held its first college graduation, awarding seven women their associate degrees. By then, Wilkins was out of prison, but that morning, she walked through the front door, up the staircase, through the metal detector and down the hall to the prison’s gym. She fondly recalls that one graduate, 28-year-old Drea, had technically been paroled two months earlier, but had pleaded with prison administrators to let her stay in prison and finish her degree. That day, Drea’s mother, in the final stages of cancer and unable to travel without an oxygen tank, watched proudly as her daughter received her diploma. Drea was released the following day; her mother died nine days later.

Wilkins credits higher education with not only transforming her life, but smoothing her own reentry. If not for College Bound, she might not have walked out of prison with both a job and an apartment already waiting for her.

As she neared her release date, she learned that the former College Bound coordinator, Benay Rubenstein, had started the College Initiative, which assisted formerly incarcerated people in pursuing a college education. Remembering Wilkins’ dedication to helping others, Rubenstein offered her a job as an academic counselor. Another College Bound staffer helped her find an apartment. When Wilkins walked out of prison, the pair were waiting on the sidewalk. They drove Wilkins to a nearby diner where she signed her new lease and ate her first post-prison meal, enjoying eggs over easy for the first time in over eight years. The following Monday, Wilkins began her new job. But, she cautions, hers is an atypical reentry story made much easier by her work with College Bound.

While Wilkins’ story is exceptional, studies show that education drastically reduces the rates of recidivism, or being returned to prison. In 2005, the year that Wilkins left Bayview, the recidivism rate for New York state prisoners who participated in Bard’s prison education program was four percent; the national average was 67.8 percent. Among those who graduated with a bachelor’s degree, the recidivism rate dropped below three percent.

In 2008, Wilkins sat on a park bench with Kathy Boudin to talk about their work around reentry and incarceration. Boudin had been among the initial group of women who approached Bedford’s superintendent about reestablishing college. Both had been out of prison for years, but continued to work around prison issues. That conversation led to the Criminal Justice Initiative at The Columbia School of Social Work where they gave presentations on how to work with individuals and families impacted by incarceration. From there, the two developed the Center for Justice, bringing the issues of mass incarceration onto the Ivy League campus and curriculum.

The door to the Criminal Justice Initiative at the Columbia Center for Justice.

As they had years earlier with College Bound, the pair held planning meetings and developed programs while working full-time jobs elsewhere. It wasn’t until 2011, three years after that park bench conversation, that Wilkins was able to transition to working at Columbia full-time. Now, she spends her days bringing the issues surrounding mass incarceration out of the shadows and onto the campus and curriculum.

But none of this might have happened had she not had the opportunity to earn her degree while inside prison. “I didn’t have a purpose in life before I went to prison,” she reflects. “Higher education gave me my purpose.”

Now, others behind bars have a similar opportunity. In 2016, the Obama administration created the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, a pilot program waiving the federal restrictions on Pell grants for people in prison and allowing 12,000 people in over one hundred prisons to earn their degree. Like their pre-1994 counterparts, incarcerated students take up less than one percent of the annual Pell grant budget. However, the overall ban on Pell grants for prisoners remains in place and is unlikely to be rescinded by the current Congress.

“Change may have to come state by state rather than waiting for federal support,” Wilkins reflects. She points to New York governor Cuomo’s attempts to reinstate college programs in ten state prisons. In 2014, he introduced a plan, but withdrew it after sharp criticism and opposition by state legislators. Two years later, in 2016, he re-introduced it, this time with $7.5 million from forfeiture funds seized by the Manhattan district attorney and another $7.5 million from private matching funds.

Wilkins is heartened by these efforts. “I’m a firm believer that everybody should have the opportunity to go to school if they want to pursue higher education,” she says.