MMC Harnesses the Power of Community with Bedford Hills Conference Crossing Borders

It had been seven years since MMC students, faculty, and staff had boarded a bus destined for Bedford Hills, a hamlet north of the city and home to the maximum-security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women. Since 2006, the College has held a biennial academic conference, Crossing Borders, at the prison, a rare moment for incarcerated students in MMC’s Bedford Hills College Program to meet face-to-face with peers from 71st Street. But when the pandemic shuttered plans for a 2020 symposium, it led to the longest stretch ever between conferences—and left some wondering when community members from the two sites might be together in-person again.

That question was answered last month. On April 28, the College resumed Crossing Borders with 85 Bedford Hills students and more than 50 community members and guests from 71st Street gathering in the facility’s school building. Bedford students clutched their MMC folders and talked excitedly about choosing between panels, 15 this year. During the welcome address in the auditorium, Katie LeBesco, Associate Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, reminded them to be careful hurrying from session to session—Crossing Borders, she said, is the only academic conference she’s been to where attendees are so excited, they run.

Indeed, the time apart hadn’t changed how meaningful the conference is for all who attend, particularly Bedford Hills students.

“Crossing Borders makes us feel more like human beings and not like inmates,” said Jessica S. ’22, who graduated from the college program last year as valedictorian and now works with it to support students.

Some Bedford Hills students, frantically taking notes, were eager to see what they could glean from sessions, like Hardy, who is taking a Writing 101 class that has inspired her to keep improving. Others relished the chance to show the outside world how well Bedford Hills students do academically. More than a dozen Bedford Hills students led panels, ranging from an interactive workshop on the poetry genres zuihitsu and renga to using art to explore genetic illness.

“The conference lets us get our voices out there and show everything we’ve accomplished,” said Tonia R., who’ll receive her associate’s degree this month. “It’s a great opportunity to share what we’ve learned.”

The conference also gave Bedford Hills students a platform to educate others about a pressing human rights issue within corrections. In a panel titled “Don’t Say Gay: Talkin’ Trans,” transwomen students Geri E. and Sara K. detailed the constant threat of violence and abuse they and other trans and nonbinary people face when housed in men’s facilities. Protections for incarcerated people who are trans—and how well they are enforced—vary across the country. Under a directive introduced by New York Governor Kathy Hochul in 2022, trans people can be housed in facilities that align with their gender identity, but each scenario is taken on a case-by-case basis and ultimately decided by wardens.

Sara K. said that being transferred to Bedford Hills from a men’s facility had profoundly impacted her life and feeling safe for the first time had allowed her to excel in the college program. “I can sleep at night without worrying about being attacked,” she said.

Other panels offered a glimpse at initiatives helping to promote student well-being. That included Puppies Behind Bars, a nonprofit that trains justice-involved individuals to raise puppies as service dogs for veterans, therapy dogs for victims of traumatic events, and explosive detection canines for law enforcement and first responders. The organization brought several black labs from the program with them.

Alice T., a Bedford student who works with the group, said that when the labs are in the room, it instantly changes the dynamic, creating a therapeutic experience for handlers and others who encounter them.

“A lot of us here at the facility have trauma, and these dogs are helping us,” she said. “Two of the commands you’ll hear us use are, ‘Watch me’ and ‘Heel.’ So you’ll hear us say, ‘Watch me, heel; watch me, heel; watch me heal.”

Visitors were also introduced to G Squad, a step team made up of Bedford Hills students that has become a mainstay at the facility’s communal celebrations.

The team, which traced the history and art of stepping back to African folk traditions, provides an outlet students wouldn’t otherwise have. “It gives our bodies a voice,” said G Squad member Krystal A. “Every move you make in prison is monitored, and you can’t do anything that could be interpreted as aggressive. But stepping allows us to express ourselves.”

With their matching yellow bow ties, G Squad members see themselves as not only ambassadors of the college program but also recruiters. “You have to be a college student to join [the step team], and that has motivated some people to finish their GEDs and enroll [in the college program],” said the group’s founder Tami E, who is set to earn her associate’s degree. “Everyone knows we’re college students first—and that the learning center is a sacred space for us.”

Everyone knows we’re college students first—and that the learning center is a sacred space for us.” Tami E., a Bedford Hills student

Crossing Borders also offers powerful experiences for those from MMC’s main campus. Lindsey Cronin ’25, a psychology major at 71st Street who led a panel on dialectical behavior therapy—a type of talk therapy—said she wanted to attend because “it was a unique opportunity that I thought I could learn from.”

“I wanted to present on a topic that could help people, and I was happy to have such an engaged group to work with,” she said. “Overall, the event was wonderful, and I was deeply impacted by my experience for the better. Being able to not only learn from each other but to get to sit down, talk, and have lunch was so meaningful. I was so honored to be a part of this event.”

As co-president of the Bedford Hills College Program Club, a student group at 71st Street that looks for ways to support their Bedford Hills peers, DeSyre Collier ’24 has done her fair share of research on the facility. Still, by the conference’s lunch break, Collier, a Politics and Human Rights and Public Relations and Strategic Communications double major, was awestruck. “I learned more in the last three hours about prison education than I have in all my time at 71st Street,” she said.

 

A Decades-Long Commitment

By any number of measures, the Bedford Hills College Program has been a success. MMC has served as the sole degree-granting institution at the facility for more than 20 years, conferring more than 300 bachelor’s and associate degrees. The recidivism rate among released graduates of the program is virtually zero, compared with the national average of 55 percent for women. And many alums have gone on to pursue advanced degrees.

Jessica S., who’ll be released in May is planning to get a master’s in social work at Hunter College. A fellow graduate, Jackie, who received her BA in 2020, is working to earn a Master of Professional Studies from New York Theological Seminary. Her thesis project examines over-sentencing, and she hopes to start an organization devoted to the issue.

Still, there’s a story behind the extraordinary work MMC undertakes at Bedford Hills as well as the nearby medium-security prison Taconic Correctional Facility, where the College has partnered with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison since 2019 to award degrees. A panel led by LeBesco and MMC Archivist and Bibliographer Mary Brown presented the history of the College and its mission to expand the presence of underrepresented communities in academia.

In 1995, over 350 higher education programs stopped offering college classes and degree programs in New York State prisons after public funding for them was discontinued. At the time, Bedford’s college program was run by Mercy College and was also terminated.

The developments came well after MMC’s leadership and alums agreed the College needed to make a shift. “There had been a real push at MMC to serve the community in a new way, for us to become an urban center,” said MMC Trustee Catherine M. Patten, RSHM, Ph.D. “That social concern is part of what paved the way for Bedford Hills. There was a real commitment to rescue the program when it was floundering.”

MMC led partnering institutions such as Pace University and Sarah Lawrence College in forming a consortium. Pooling resources, they resumed offering college courses at Bedford Hills in 1997, with MMC serving as the degree-granting institution. In 2004 the Bedford Hills College Program officially became an extension campus of MMC.

Still, after an MMC trustee brought the impressive work of a Bedford Hills student to LeBesco’s attention, she realized that more at 71st Street needed to become aware of the program. LeBesco worked with Aileen Baumgartner, the longtime director of the Bedford Hills College Program, to draft a proposal for the first Crossing Borders in 2006.

Today, however, Crossing Borders is far from the only form of connection between the College’s multiple communities. MMC has become a national model for an approach known as BRIDGE, or “Building Relationships for Inclusion, Diversity, Globalism, and Equity.” It promotes a one-campus mentality, encouraging collaboration and dialogue at MMC’s 71st Street, Bedford Hills, and Taconic learning sites.

Erin Greenwell, the College’s Ferraro Fellow in Prison Education and an Associate Professor of Communication and Media Arts, has been exploring the potential to work together through shared projects across locations. One example presented at the conference was Great (Internal) Migrations, a collaboration between the Bedford Hills class Elements of 2-D Animation and the 71st Street class Film and Media Scoring. Bedford Hills students created works of 2-D animation and poetry—read by alums and friends of the Bedford Hills College Program—and 71st Street students created the accompanying music.

With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Greenwell and Bedford Hills College Program Assistant Monica Szlekovics also organized a slate of events this academic year to foster connection and bring MMC’s justice-involved students greater visibility. They included the annual Stand Up, Speak Out Arts and Social Justice Festival featuring collaborative work by students at Bedford Hills and 71st Street, and a joint photo exhibit centering the stories of justice-involved women.

“We’re three learning sites but one student body,” Greenwell said. “More and more, we’ll be doing events like Crossing Borders that bring us together.

Published: May 09, 2023