A Bronx Oasis: The Effect of College Programs in Prison and the Community of Ignacio House
By: Henry James (C'22)
June 28, 2023
This research explores the impact of Jesuit engagement in Thrive for Life’s Ignacio House, a transitional home in the Bronx, New York, for those who are re-integrating into society and continuing their educational journeys. Interviews with residents about their experiences in educational programs both in and beyond prison reveal the transformative power of college in prison.
“And then I just, I guess [reading] made me more reflective, made me more perceptive. It just made me quieter. In that silence, I was just trying to figure, you know, what was wrong with me? Or where I went wrong. You know, in terms of just like, how did I get here? Is prison the best I can do?” (Anonymous #1, Ignacio House, New York, July 20, 2021).
Sixty-six percent of those released from prison are reincarcerated within three years and 82% within 10 years. Yet the recidivism rate for graduates of Mercy College’s program in Sing-Sing Correctional Facility is a mere 2%.1 What explains this extraordinary gap? The commonsensical belief that education leads to a better future seems plausible in a carceral context, but why? For me and my classmates, Georgetown University opens the door to future employment. For men returning home from prison, this is not always the case. To prospective employers and landlords, their record of incarceration is weighed against their diplomas.
Yet the statistics remain stark. Does college in prison change the way a person thinks? Does it help them persist in the face of structural barriers while reintegrating into society? Or maybe those who choose to complete college degrees in prison are simply already less likely to return to prison in the first place?
I lived at Thrive for Life Prison Project’s Ignacio House of Studies, located between the Tremont and Claremont neighborhoods of the Bronx, for three weeks in July 2021, trying to understand why education helps people stay out of prison. The Ignacio House of Studies was founded in 2019 by Rev. Zach Presutti, S.J., a Jesuit of the New York province, who started the Thrive for Life Prison Project to supplement his ministry in prisons throughout the state. Beginning with religious retreats, the organization grew and eventually bought property in the Bronx. Fr. Zach observed the struggles of returning citizens to find affordable housing and decided to create a transitional community for men who had sought a college education while incarcerated. Residents of Ignacio House (IH) either finished a degree in prison or started one and are in the process of finishing it.
The following research is based on 21 hour-long semi-structured interviews conducted at IH, as well as many unrecorded conversations I had with residents at meals, museums, a Yankees game, and on the subway. I tried to understand how the residents were thinking about this transitional moment in their lives. Those I lived with were more generous than I could have imagined. I learned how college programs in prison often gave people a new comprehension of themselves, a new community within prison, and an understanding of the “power of choice.”
I also asked residents and administrators about how the IH community differs from the typical options presented to those returning from prison. City shelters and family members’ houses are the two most common landing places. Community and environment are often major factors in one’s original incarceration and eventual process of reentry. IH aims to provide a community unlike any that residents have ever encountered: community defined by hesed—a Hebrew word translated as steadfast love. During my stay, I saw a group of men, most of whom had been strangers not long ago, striving to restart and put their reflections into practice.
“Turn on the washer and dryer, turn on the radio, turn on the TV, and everything’s up… I’m drowning out everything around on the open decks. There’s four tiers and everything is open, so there’s about probably 500 men at one time probably having some form of conversation” (interview #14, July 22, 2022). Incessant distractions are one of the challenges to pursuing an education in prison; an even larger barrier is the stigma associated with being a student. “A lot of people dislike you because you’re doing something positive with your time,” a resident recalled of his early days pursuing education (interview #8, July 15, 2021). For those who persisted, college programs provided a new community and an alternative to gangs.
Faced with the prospect of fending for oneself in a violent prison, many residents at IH had first chosen to maintain gang affiliations. Several residents described the point when they realized how tired they were: “I got tired of being amongst nothing,” one of the residents told me, “I felt like there was nothing to show for anything” (interview #14, July 22, 2021). Whether one can even make the decision to leave a gang depends on the alternatives presented. Residents emphasized that college programs in Wallkill and Sing-Sing Correctional Facilities made a huge impact on changing the entire social dynamic of the prison (NYU and Mercy College, respectively, run these programs). In prisons where college programs have a significant foothold, the texture of prison life changes for those participating. Residents described their peers, who spent most of their days either in class or studying, as energized and eager to discuss the day’s topic when they returned to their cell. For these people, education is an escape—one that can even make them forget where they are, if just for a moment. “They [students] would come back to the dorm… hyped up talking about [school]” (emphasis added; Anonymous #2, July 13, 2021). Whether these alternative communities are available to inmates depends on the priorities of the prison's administration.
The administration at Sing-Sing Correctional Facility has made a conscious choice to focus on programming, and the entire prison culture has changed as a result. One resident told me that “administrators feel that because we are doing education, our voice matters and our opinion matters.” Several residents that I spoke with had participated in Sing-Sing’s past TEDx events. Many began finding their identities outside of gang affiliation in their education program: “That’s my lane. That’s my niche. That’s what I’m going to do” (interview #14, July 22, 2021). When enough Sing-Sing social leaders committed to the Mercy College program, a larger cultural shift occurred:
You had the toughest guys in prison… getting involved in education. And once that happens—you know the tough guys can do it—what’s stopping me? Everyone looks to the leaders of the prison to see where the wind is blowing… and if the leaders… are getting involved in education, then there has to be something there (interview #13, July 16, 2021).
“Programming” can and should mean more than just college programs. Sing-Sing and other like-minded facilities have made many different non-college options available to inmates, which, in the case of several Ignacio House residents, were often a first step towards eventually enrolling in a college program. But many prisons throughout New York state remain punitive and “pro-corrections.” These facilities are “dreary,” “gloomy,” and “the culture is gone” (interview #14, July 22, 2021). In these situations, dehumanization and animosity between fellow prisoners and guards feed on each other and perpetuate violence; neither side can recognize the full humanity of the other. But when the administration focuses on wide-ranging programming, a different culture can grow. As one of the residents told me, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” (interview #14, July 22, 2021). Sing-Sing’s progressive approach has changed the retributive status quo.
In prisons where gangs still dominate, however, the decision to leave a gang often guarantees retribution. One resident told me how he had to purposefully bring violence upon himself to pursue education. Stuck in gang life at a correctional facility without educational programming, the resident decided to end his gang participation by intentionally instigating a fight that would get him transferred to a different facility (interview #14, July 22, 2021). These situations are more likely to arise in a “pro-corrections” context. Programming is about changing a prison’s culture so that residents are not forced to make such a decision. It’s not a light switch, though. This change takes sustained commitment from a prison’s leadership. Social dynamics between prisoners themselves, and between prisoners and guards, cannot be changed overnight: “prison infuses a mentality and perception of hopelessness that makes it hard to sway from ‘the routine,’” as one resident described. Group acquiescence to “the routine” is the root cause of the backlash that many residents described following their decision to pursue education. But a sustained commitment by both administrators and prisoners in Sing-Sing has shown that significant cultural changes are possible.
Knowledge and Voice
“Some folks had come in and there was a young Latino brother who had come in, and the way he spoke, he was so articulate. He was able to code-switch. He could talk the slang and then he could talk this high-level stuff that I wasn’t used to unless it was an attorney. And I listened to this cat, and I was, like, shit, I want to talk like that. So he and I [got to talking]. And he said, ‘How much time are you facing?’
And I said, ‘I’m pretty much facing spending the rest of my life here.’
‘You got your GED?’
‘What are you waiting for? Go get it’” (interview #13, July 16, 2021).
Residents were often intimidated by the process of applying to a college program. Beyond prison culture, many thought that education was not for them, that they were not capable of succeeding in a college-level program. Often, it was the consistent cajoling of a fellow prisoner or another outside friend that pushed them to eventually make the decision. Many described a person who inspired them, who demonstrated that “some people do make it out” (Anonymous #2, July 13, 2021). Once enrolled, classes became both an escape and a catalyst. Many residents reflected on some version of the same two things that their college programs gave them: 1) a specific kind of self-knowledge; and 2) the realization that they have a voice. College in prison gave them a new language to describe themselves, their experiences, and their futures.
Psychology courses often provided a new way to understand their past: “NYU, it taught me a lot about myself… my peers, just human behavior. When I was beginning to learn about myself and about people, my life just started to make sense” (Anonymous #2, July 13, 2021). By learning how a particular environment affects one’s behavior, residents began to better understand their early life. One resident told me that, growing up, he was angry and “felt the world owed him something. As a youth, growing up in these environments… I didn’t have anything to lose,” he recounted, “That’s why it was so easy for me to pick up a gun. And so easy for me to sell drugs… [and] get involved with gangs. I didn’t have anything to lose… that was my motto” (Anonymous #2, July 13, 2021). College courses pointed out that he had not been given anything to lose—and that he could change his self-destructive mindset. With all of the pitfalls lurking in the environments that many residents grew up in, the odds were stacked against them from the start. To beat the odds, they would have needed to grow up quicker than everyone else. Many people struggle their whole lives to develop the self-restraint needed in such an environment. These abilities are the ideals of education. Residents’ college programs provided tools to manage environments filled with negative possibilities.
Many residents felt that education had provided the linguistic tools to de-escalate potentially violent situations and more effectively manage their emotions. “The most primitive form of communication is violence,” as one resident once summarized to me (interview #14, July 22, 2021). It occurs in the absence of communication: “If a person doesn’t have access to the language to be able to express themselves clearly, concisely, and accurately, it leads to frustration. It leads to anger. It leads to violence” (interview #13, July 16, 2021). Enhancing one’s grasp of language and ability to communicate also helped men deal with their emotions. “There’s a lot of emotional issues that we haven’t dealt with that sometimes rise to the front and force us to lash out at people violently because we don’t know how to effectively communicate” (interview #14, July 22, 2021). This process led to many different types of reflection.
Several began to question their beliefs. One resident described how a prejudicial belief that women should not be playing sports was broken down:
“You grow up in the streets with a certain culture. Certain things couldn’t be done, shouldn’t be done. All these things are just founded on nothing. Females and sports drove me nuts. And I sat down a few years ago, and I was like, ‘What the hell is the actual problem?’ And I couldn’t come up with any answer to that [laughs].” (interview #13, July 16, 2021).
When I asked about the exact process by which this realization came about, the resident credited his interlocutor, an NYU professor, who had asked him a simple question amid a class debate one day: “Why are you upset?”
“I don’t know why I’m upset,” he remembered saying to himself. “And [that realization] messed me up. I could not for the life of me understand this anger,” he continued, “and that was a turning point for me, to try and figure out why I have all this anger and emotions tied into some of these ideas.”
For many, education also prompted a realization of their potential selves. “Education has allowed me to see the best possible version of myself,” said one resident (interview #13, July 16, 2021). Another, in an article he published, summed up the long-term impact this can have: “After sampling a glimpse of the new you, this sudden yearning to achieve another goal becomes an incredible motivator.” But this type of reflection was not strictly a product of courses. One resident, who had earned multiple college degrees in prison, described how he was still participating in gang life while in school. It was not until later that he became disillusioned with the social hierarchies he found himself within—after he had gotten tired of the emptiness he perceived in gang life. By this point, he had long since stopped taking college classes. The questions he asked at that point are enough to make anyone pause:
“Yeah, this is prison. And you may never be going home. You can still be free in prison. So, it’s like, ‘wake up idiot.’ What do you want? How do you truly feel? What do you truly believe in? You’re talking this but you’re doing this. Who are you? Are you just playing the game, or are you serious about your life? And it came to the point that, yo man, I am. I’m serious about my life. And I’m serious about what I believe. And even though it may not help me get out of here, it may help somebody else.” (interview #5, July 15, 2021)
College programs are obviously not the only path to self-reflection.
There was a shared belief among residents about the need to use their education to help others. Having taken classes in a communal environment, residents realized that they were “part of something larger than [themselves]” (Anonymous #2, July 13, 2021). Whether it was through reading (“reading helped me expand my view of the world… let me understand that [the world] was bigger than just my neighborhood… bigger than just me and my needs,” interview #13, July 16, 2021) or interactions in classes with undergraduates outside of prison (“to see kids from Japan, from China, from Africa, and just to hear how they think, it just made me understand that I’m a part of something larger than myself,” Anonymous #2), residents gained a broader perspective upon finishing the program. Several residents also detailed the self-imposed duty that came with their success. Going back into prison—now as a civilian mentor in the programs they once participated in—is mandatory. “The men need to see something… that we are similar to them, to give them hope that there is life after prison. And that is an obligation that everybody that gets a degree must adhere to. If you are not adhering to it, you’re squandering your education” (interview #14, July 22, 2021).
College programs allowed residents to realize the power of choice and the difference between reacting and acting. As one resident said, “[Education] helped me to create that distance between what happens to me and how I react.” He described how psychology classes helped him understand the ways environment shapes decision-making, allowing him “to control that knee-jerk reaction” (interview #13, July 16, 2021). He also described how his view of his future had changed: “I always thought I was a product of my environment,” how his ending up in prison was “just the way things [were] supposed to be” (Anonymous #2, July 13, 2021). But his courses changed that:
“It was through education that I actually discovered that I have a voice. That I have the ability to change things. You know I, the most profound thing that I’ve learned through that whole experience up until now is that—the power of choice. That there is a choice in every matter. And that’s another thing, as I’m educating myself, I’m building my confidence at the same time. So once I’m doing all this, and this thing is going on inside of me, it makes sense now that I don't have to be a product of my environment. Why not create, you know, a lane where I can be the product of my success? You see what I’m saying? [Yeah.] I don’t have to be that. And education has took [sic] me outside of that box.” (Anonymous #2, July 13, 2021)
Once this resident violated his parole and went back to prison, his beliefs were put to the test. The way he viewed his return to prison demonstrates his growth: “I went back to prison for five months. And the whole experience was a learning experience. I learned from that because I had a choice” (Anonymous #2, July 13, 2021). He could have chosen to be angry, or placed the blame on his parole officer—instead, he saw it as an opportunity.
Building a community is the aspirational goal of the house. “Community is the most important thing,” Fr. Zach told me (interview with Rev. Zach Presutti, S.J., founder of Thrive for Life and Ignacio House, July 21, 2021). He wants IH to be a community based in hesed, which, in his words, is “love that keeps on loving… that keeps on keeping on.” A place where those who have potentially only ever been wounded by those around them can have their dignity “fostered and restored.”
“I oftentimes think that our whole lives are really about settling into… this reality of being loved by God,” Fr. Zach described, “not by ourselves, not by our parents., not by our boss, not by our spouse, but that we are held by an existence that’s far beyond our own self and settling into that… I think that that is community at its best. [When] people can fully be themselves, can be cradled back to their loving nature” (July 21, 2021).
The “house” (comprising three adjacent row houses) opened its doors right before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it faced a number of obstacles during its first few years. It was a “house of studies” from the start, but there was initially more leniency in who was accepted into the house. This led to issues, including several residents having to leave. “I think one of the major learnings of this past year has been this house, this community, this space has a specific mission. And we have a specific purpose,” Fr. Zach reflected, “And that a big part of it is that we have a…certain person we're looking for that could be a part of the community” (July 21, 2021). Once referred to IH by an institutional partner, potential residents have to now fill out an application and have several conversations with administrators and current residents. According to Fr. Zach, “the final buck stops” with the resident leadership council, a group of residents he selects to take a larger role in the administration of the house.
Fr. Zach believes in the transformative power of steadfast love, and he embodies it. “Fr. Zach, he keeps coming, keeps reaching, [he has a way of] coming to you,” one resident described (interview #16, September 5, 2021). But this is not a one-sided love; residents now also sign a “covenant agreement” when entering the house.“It's a covenantal love, it's a love based in relationship; these are the expectations for you, these are the expectations for us,” Fr. Zach summarized. It is not charity: “Charity is toxic. It breeds dependence. It breeds dominance, power dynamics… I’m not running a daycare. This is a community, a community of people who are committed to flourishing” (July 21, 2021). The residents are “a part of this mission, not just a recipient of this mission.” The end result is “a covenantal relationship [and] ingrained with it is not only personal responsibility, but communal responsibilities to one another which hold each other accountable, and then ultimately build trust with one another” (July 21, 2021). The residents’ experiences in prison, however, complicate this process.
“Like chiseling at concrete with a pencil” — Prison Culture and the Challenge of Escaping It
A cultural hangover from prison can make it harder to build community. In prison, a person’s reality is highly determined by the signals they send—to their correctional officers, program leaders, and fellow prisoners. Prison is suffused with uncertainties; it’s a conditional reality in which violent change is possible at any moment. So prisoners put up a defense—layers of protection that carefully filter their thoughts and actions. They necessarily become highly attuned to what they say to those in power and those around them. A lot of individuals are “faking it to make it,” in a phrase often used by residents—trying to manipulate those around them. None of this is suited for building genuine relationships and cooperating with others in a shared space.
“Don’t be a rat.” This mantra is entrenched deeper than any other. “You don’t meddle with other people,” but this, as Fr. Zach pointed out, “is the antithesis of life. You are unable to go through life that way on the outside… you don’t just stick to yourself… [you’re] interfacing with people all the time” (July 21, 2021). I heard about the challenge of getting residents to shift their mindset from the entire community—Fr. Zach, other administrators, and even residents themselves. It’s a slow process—“like chiseling at concrete with a pencil,” in Fr. Zach’s words—but he believes it to be the most important step to the community flourishing and developing honest relationships.
“It takes time. People have been hurt. People have been wounded. People have been offered a love that cannot be trusted in their lives. And so to enter into a community like this and say, ‘Okay, we got to start trusting each other.’ That’s not like a light switch. That’s more like a slow dimmer. It takes time to light up. So you got to go along with the vicissitudes of that because it’s not always an uphill trajectory.” (interview with Fr. Zach, July 21, 2021).
“Not a Commodity” — Residents’ Views on Community
Living in a community with 25 other men is messy. There is plenty of bickering, but this is by design in the case of IH. Fr. Zach outlined how “the living space has to be one that mirrors how people live. Everybody in New York lives like this” (July 21, 2021). Residents typically live with one to two others in a floor unit, just like many in the city. Many residents told me that they started valuing the community after their college programs; IH is where this belief is put into practice. “School taught me the importance of community,” as one resident remembered, “everything that is happening in my life is basically a result of me being in relationships with a lot of different people” (Anonymous #1, July 20, 2021).
The attempt to cultivate a community culture in a transitional environment will always be a challenge. Adding to this difficulty was the fact that for the first year and a half of the house’s existence, there were strict COVID-19 protocols in place. Many new community activities were just being started when I was living there. The house’s attempt to counter its transitional nature is to have some “infrastructure and structure already built in,” such as weekly group dinners, planned outings, and weekly community meetings (interview with Fr. Zach; interview with Sebastian Budinich, on-site coordinator, July 24, 2021). The structural design of the facility lends itself well to group activities. It has four common spaces: a dining room (where everyone attends a weekly dinner on Sundays), a gym, a learning center, and a glorious three-tiered garden in the backyard.
The residents’ overall impression was that the house can do a better job organizing more informal events. The house, when I lived there, lacked an easy and convenient means for group communication, like an electronic group chat for residents. But residents were universal in praising the group outings that had been organized (Central Park for the Fourth of July and a Yankees game were two popular events).
Residents were also united in their appreciation for the uniqueness of the house as a landing spot. It was not an easy decision to open the house. Fr. Zach described how finding the real estate and opening a transitional house was not a decision he was encouraged to make. Many told him not to do it and do a services-based approach instead. He persisted:
“I firmly believed that we had to offer housing. I did not think going into prison and telling people how much God loves them was enough” (July 21, 2021).
“When it comes to re-habilitation, to restore someone back to normal… If I came from housing projects in the inner city, crimes, drugs fully blown in my neighborhood—my mom’s on crack, my dad’s in prison. I’m a high school dropout selling drugs, how are you going to re-habilitate me? Why would you want to re-habilitate me back to that state? There was nothing normal about that in the beginning.” (Anonymous #2, July 13, 2021).
Nothing is normal about the conditions in which the residents of IH grew up. Their behavior as young men, however, is more normal than it might seem. I lived at Ignacio House following my junior year at Georgetown. College students party; they drink and use drugs; they join groups that encourage self-destructive behavior. The way these two groups of young people make decisions isn’t all that different. But the decisions put in front of them are. Both groups are pushed into a stream by their environment; neither possesses the ability to go against the current as young people.
One of the greatest challenges for returning members of society is they are put back into the same stream. The same relationships and opportunities (or lack thereof) that were originally responsible for their incarceration are still present in their lives. But those released from prison with a college degree have, based on the statistics, gained the ability to swim upstream. Is this the product of education?
IH residents gained a new mindset from their college programs, but their stories hardly demonstrate that an education alone is sufficient to change their life. IH also provides a roof over their heads and a community striving towards common and productive goals. All three of these factors—a new mindset, a roof, and a new set of relationships—combine to support them in their re-entry and give them the ability to make different decisions when presented with the same opportunities. Because those same critical moments will arise. One resident told me of the experience of finding himself in a room with old friends one evening, facing a fork in the road, a moment when he could’ve re-entered his old life. He paused, and then went the other way.
Father Zach once told me, “You don’t go back to the fire after you’ve experienced the sun.” I wasn't sure what he meant. Before I arrived at the house, I also wasn’t sure how this group of men, so vastly different from myself, would react to me. In the end, they were both generous to me as a housemate and vulnerable with me as an interviewer. They shared not only their lives, but also their thoughts. This trust hadn’t been earned. The only explanation I can find is that Fr. Zach’s vision is coming to fruition. This group of men is experiencing the steadfast love that Fr. Zach described, and they are now embodying it themselves.
1 It should be noted that Mercy College’s 2% recidivism rate is unusually stark. The data is still clear, however: in the case of formerly incarcerated individuals, higher levels of education are correlated with lower rates of recidivism.
The views expressed in this student research are those of the author(s) and not of the Berkley Center or Georgetown University.