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Rehabilitative programs are dwindling in New York prisons.
Photo by Pramot on Depositphotos

Doing time is one part droning monotony peppered with searing regret, and one part mental and physical combat with demons, real and imagined. In prison, there are people who attain a kind of grace and meet their best selves, laying the foundation for better days.

But, like everything else, the promise of rehabilitation in prison became much less certain in 2022.

Academic and vocational programs were already disappearing from prisons before COVID-19. Proliferating retirements, sickouts and leaves of absence compounded the problem — and were acutely felt. It seems like many people at my prison are without meaningful programs.

Volunteer programs, such as Alternatives to Violence Project, were suspended because of COVID-19. Guest speakers for Narcotics Anonymous or educational programs ceased visiting because of the pandemic. Reduced programming opportunities turned rehabilitation into an empty hope for many incarcerated people.

The exception to this has been college programs. The restoration of New York’s Tuition Assistance Program and Pell Grant funding has reinvigorated existing New York prison college programs and added college seats.

Still, participation in college programs represents just a sliver of the general prison population. Many people in prison still need high school equivalency diplomas. Without proper academic programs for the grade-school level, the pool of college-eligible students may dry up, and the door to what is widely considered one of the most successful tools of rehabilitation will close.

Without meaningful academic, vocational and therapeutic programs we are lost, flailing aimlessly in the subculture of drugs and violence that brought most of us here. Beyond taking personal responsibility, there is little we can do to better ourselves if the opportunities don’t exist.

COVID-19 reminded all of us about our fragile existence, but life is different for those of us in prison. Our most heartfelt goals are aspirational at best. Prison is a place of dreams deferred. Here the quest for freedom is our raison d'être, but in 2022 that hope has been mixed with trepidation.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.