College education for women in prison: my internship with Operation Restoration

Changemaker Catalyst Award recipient Giorgia Cristiani is currently an Education intern at Operation Restoration, a New-Orleans based organization providing services and support to women impacted by incarceration. Giorgia is a PhD candidate of French and Francophone Studies at Tulane.

According to recent statistics, 1.8 million people are currently held in United States state and federal prisons and local jails. In our society, prisons are commonly depicted as a ‘necessary evil’ and, to some, imprisonment represents the pillar of justice: the common opinion is that those who are labeled as criminals deserve punishment, and they must be isolated from society so as not being a public menace. This simplistic understanding of prison and crime is the position adopted by the ruling class and justice authorities (often regardless of their political affiliation) and perpetuated by the media, in a way that very few people question the validity of this model.

Yet, if you have been impacted by incarceration, or know someone who has, you are probably familiar with the fallacies of this system. Throughout the centuries, prison went from being a place to wait for the (corporal) punishment to itself becoming the punishment, and studies have shown over and over how imprisonment does not rehabilitate, and recidivism rates continue to be high. This is often due to the fact that once a person is labeled a felon, any opportunity for improvement becomes almost unreachable. People who are released from prison face difficulties in finding employment because of the stigma and discrimination against them, and are banned altogether from several professions because of their record; when a job can be obtained, it is usually not one that pays enough to cover living expenses, as those who have spent years in prison may have limited experience and qualifications (most prisons don’t offer much in terms of professional development and education programs), so they are forced to rely mostly on minimum wage positions. Housing is difficult, too, as many landlords and companies refuse to rent to people with convictions. Additionally, after prison people lose the right to vote, and most of the time they have to pay back staggering court fees.

Coming back to society is complicated by the fact that imprisonment is a profoundly dehumanizing experience which affect one’s mental health and wellbeing. Physical and mental abuse runs rampant in prisons, healthcare is scarce, addictions are for the most part left unaddressed or worsened by the easy access to drugs in most institutions, and communicating with loved ones is difficult and costly, with phone providers that often charge over $5 for a 20-minute call, and visitations who are not easy to attend for family and friends given to prisons’ geographical isolation.

Operation Restoration actively works to counteract many of these issues. Operation Restoration is a New Orleans-based non-profit organization led by formerly incarcerated women that provides help and support to women impacted by incarceration. Through advocacy, education, economic mobility and equity, Operation Restoration’s different programs assist incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women in the pursuit of high school diploma equivalency, college degrees, professional opportunities, housing, and more. The organization also writes and advocates for the passage of legislation that benefit formerly and currently incarcerated people: one of their most remarkable successes is LA Act 276 (Ban the Box), prohibiting public colleges in Louisiana from asking about criminal history in admissions.

I was already familiar with Operation Restoration, having volunteered as a GED/HiSet tutor for their Women First Clinic in 2019. The Changemaker Catalyst Award allowed me to do an internship with their college in prison program, which offers college classes to people in the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW), in partnership with Newcomb Institute and School of Professional Advancement at Tulane University. I have always been interested in the potential of higher education outside of the classic academic setting, and the internship was a perfect opportunity to get to learn more of what is behind the scenes of college in prison. I was also interested in the prison setting specifically: having previously volunteered at Louisiana Books 2 Prisoners (a local non-profit that sends books for free to people in prison who request them), and having been a prison pen-pal for now over seven years, I have come to learn the specific challenges of accessing reading material and education programs in prison, and I wanted to get involved with any organization that works to overcome them.

I work closely with Stephanie Gaskill, the higher ed lead at Operation Restoration, who manages all higher educational programs. In my internship, I have two main tasks: one is to assist the women who are taking college classes with their research; the other is to conduct research on the barriers that prevent formerly incarcerated people to access higher education and careers. Because of the pandemic, my internship has been fully remote, so the isolation was challenging but overall it was still an incredibly valuable experience.

People taking classes in prison are very limited in terms of accessing material, as prison policies do not fully accommodate their students’ needs. This means, for instance, that when a student has to write a paper for a class, they cannot just google their topic to find more info, or access a library database. Therefore, I as an intern have been doing it for them. Stephanie regularly sends me emails in which she lists the students’ requests in terms of specific topics or subjects, and I find the articles that they need and any piece that might help them. I, then, transfer these files to a shared folder where Stephanie can grab them and distribute them to the students, so that they can successfully write their essays. This has been a very interesting part of my internship because I get to see what students are working on or would like to learn more about, and I conduct my own research across academic and non-academic sources to help them find what they need.

As for the second main task, Operation Restoration is constantly working to service the imprisoned and formerly imprisoned population and provide opportunities for returning citizens, and part of it has been to gather information on what currently imprisoned people’s plans are in terms of their future careers. My task was to collect information from a survey that was administered to women at LCIW and create infographics for easy data access. I have been conducting research on barriers that people with a conviction face in the pursuit of a degree and a license for STEM and healthcare jobs, which many of the women indicated as their interest. Finally, I am also doing research on the pardon process, to see how Louisiana compares to other states and what changes could be implemented to facilitate pardoning.

I am happy and thankful to be a part of Operation Restoration. Working closely with them gave me a deeper understanding of the work that is behind college in prison programs, the support the students need, and the necessary research to advance the mission. If you want to learn more about Operation Restoration, visit their website, their Facebook page, and Instagram profile. If you are interested in contributing to Operation Restoration mission, you can make a donation here.

If you want to learn more about prison justice and the rights of those imprisoned, I would recommend checking out The Marshall Project and PrisonReformMovement, watching the documentaries 13th, The House I Live In, and College Behind Bars, and reading the following books:

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis, a poignant reflection on prison abolition.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, an extensive study on race, poverty, and imprisonment rates.

American Prison: a Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer, a journalist who went undercover as a Correctional Office in a private prison of Louisiana.

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons by Ayelet Waldman, a collection of testimonies from imprisoned women.

College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration by Daniel Karpowitz, the founder of Bard Prison Initiative.

Operation Restoration works to support women impacted by incarceration
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