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James Monteiro dropped out of school when he was in the eighth grade, and then spent most of his adult life in and out of prison. He was serving a 10-year sentence in the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore when he decided to go back to school.
While incarcerated, he obtained his associate’s degree in psychology, and graduated with honors. When he was released, he enrolled at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., and obtained his bachelor’s degree.
Education changed his life, he said, and kept him out of trouble. But in Rhode Island, not all incarcerated individuals are as lucky. Many don’t have access to post-secondary education, and about 50 percent find themselves returning to prison within three years after being released. Monteiro said it’s because they return to civilian life without the necessary skills and qualifications to obtain employment that can sustain themselves or their families. They usually return to whatever got them in trouble in the first place, and end up back behind bars.
In 2018, Monteiro officially founded the Reentry Campus Program, which he hopes will help reduce the number of incarcerated individuals who return to prison.
Q. What is the Reentry Campus Program?
A. Our ultimate goal is to help currently and formerly incarcerated people finish post-secondary education and certification programs. There’s a huge disconnect between what happens behind prison walls and what happens when someone is released, and we just want to try to ease the transition to make it smoother for them to finish the work.
We have the only online testing center in the state for incarcerated individuals to take learning assessment exams. The system we use was designed and used for the military, for people overseas who wanted to continue their education. We have about 40 exams we can offer in humanities, business, social sciences, math, and technology. This method is used to award college credit for learning that was acquired outside the classroom. Taking prior learning into consideration allows them to continue their education in the most affordable way possible, by allowing students to avoid taking unnecessary and costly college courses.
Q. Do you partner with schools?
A. Yes, we are really an intermediary between the Department of Corrections and colleges. We have a growing education partner network where colleges and universities will work with us to give reduced rates to students in our programs. Roger Williams University’s School of Continuing Studies [now called University College] is one of those partners, and offers programs that can lead to certifications and associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees.
Q. How is your program different from the education programs within most prisons today?
A. There are certainly programs happening. But prisons are not designed like a college. You could have 2,000 people in a facility, but only have classroom space for about 100 people. Because of the space availability, there’s other competing demands within the education unit. What we’ve done is eliminated the need for a classroom. Our whole goal is to turn the living quarters — like cellblocks — into learning environments where they can study on their own with supports.
Because we are not dependent on classroom space, we can serve everyone in the Department of Corrections.
Q. What would make someone eligible?
A. Really, the only stipulations are that someone has a high school diploma and that they have a desire for change and to do something else in their life.
Q. Have colleges always been in prisons?
A. I think back to the Tough on Crime bill in 1994 that passed under President Clinton’s administration. One of the items in that bill was that it removed the funding for college programs inside the prison. There was a huge exodus of colleges that were operating inside prisons, which are just now returning.
Q. How many students are currently enrolled?
A. [This semester] about 70 students are enrolled. We’ve served about 500 students since we launched in 2018.
Q. What challenges do you face in this program?
A. We are reliant on philanthropy dollars, which is a concern. We would like more public support. Here’s why this program makes sense for both individuals and the economy as a whole: It costs about $2,000 per year to educate someone with a full academic load through our program. But it costs taxpayers approximately $70,000 per year to incarcerate men, about $120,000 to incarcerate one woman per year, and we spend about $210,000 to $215,000 per year on a single youth in the state of Rhode Island. We know that without an education, they are 50 percent likely to reoffend.
With an education, formerly incarcerated people become more employable in the new economy — which is harder to survive without the necessary skills and training. If we do not prepare these people for the economy, we will almost make it inevitable that they’re put back in a position where they will return to prison. Frankly, education is not only good for students and their families. It’s also good for the communities they return home to, and good for public policy.