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MMC’s Prison Education Program Adds Key Hires to Staff

MMC’s College Program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, New York, has expanded its staff with two full-time hires—one with first-hand knowledge of the program, the other with broad experience in prison education.

Kimberly Malone was named the assistant director of the Bedford Hills College Program this fall after a decade of teaching incarcerated students and administering education programs at New York State correctional facilities. She is joined by Jessica Soble ’22, who took on the newly created role of program coordinator this summer. Soble graduated from the college program in 2022 as class valedictorian and worked as an administrative assistant under its director, Aileen Baumgartner, before being released in May. She will serve as a liaison to other newly released students hoping to finish their credits at 71st Street and alums looking for support in the community.

Both Malone and Soble are expected to help the program make the path for incarcerated individuals hungry to learn and eager to earn a degree even smoother and meet needs big and small.

“Having Kimberly and Jessica on our team has been extremely helpful to me,” Baumgartner said. “The largest benefit, though, has been for our students, those still on the inside as well as those who have been released and seek to continue their education through MMC.”

MMC has been the sole degree-granting institution at Bedford Hills, a maximum-security prison for women, since 1997, with the site officially inaugurated as an extension campus of the College in 2004; it will mark its 20th anniversary in the fall. MMC began awarding degrees at the nearby medium-security Taconic Correctional Facility in 2019 in partnership with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison.

Soble will begin graduate studies at Hunter College next year and credits professors in the Bedford Hills program with helping her navigate the application process. Now, as the first point of contact for Bedford students and alums on the outside, she is eager to help others feel the same support and encouragement she’s gotten from the MMC community.

“My main goal is to make sure that students who are coming out are comfortable enough to call us,” she said. “And to let them know that if they come up to the 71st Street campus, they will be warmly welcomed by so many people just like I was.”

In fact, her standard line for students is that the Bedford Hills College Program can take them far—and that it doesn’t end at the facility. “I always tell students who come out but still have a few credits left that they can finish at 71st Street, or if they need other options, I can help them find them,” she said. “Either way, we’re here.”

Leah Gigliotti, a recently released Bedford Hills student, turned to Soble for help figuring out how to finish the last two electives needed to earn her bachelor’s degree. Having taken those classes online at MMC this semester, she’s set to graduate and looking forward to walking in the College’s May 2024 commencement.

“Jessica hooked it all up—she told me who to contact,” Gigliotti said. “I had to go through a few channels, but everyone I spoke with said it’s handled, you’ll take your last two classes and graduate. That’s literally how simple it was.”

Soble is working to start an alumni group for those now on the outside and also doles out advice, for example, encouraging networking, which helped her land her position. At Bedford Hills, she got to know interim President Peter Naccarato, Associate Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Katie LeBesco, and other MMC staff on their trips up for Crossing Borders, the College’s biennial academic conference at the facility. Soble stayed in touch and followed up as her release date came closer.

Those voices still champion her when she occasionally has her doubts. “Before Bedford Hills, I worked in tree cutting,” she said. “Katie and Peter keep reminding me that I’m the right person for this position. They’ll say, ‘We have you here because we need your brain. We need you to tell us what works.’”

Soble also drew inspiration from a recent trip to Atlanta for the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison, along with Malone, LeBesco, and Erin Greenwell, the College’s Ferraro Fellow in Prison Education and an associate professor of communication and media arts. The conference is a critical resource for those committed to strengthening educational opportunities for currently or formerly incarcerated students.

“There were so many people there who used to be incarcerated and are now working in higher ed,” she said. “And they all told me the same thing: ‘You’re fine. It’s all right. You’ll do great.’”

 

Creating healing spaces

For Malone, the path to prison education was by the book—literally. Ten years ago, as a new transplant trying to navigate her way from Brooklyn to Queens by bus, she was so engrossed in reading that she missed her stop and wound up at the end of the line: Rikers Island. Coincidentally, the passage she’d been fixated on was from Random Families, a sociological book that follows several Bronx families over time and depicts a woman’s journey to Rikers to visit a boyfriend.

Malone, then the executive director of a volunteer service program, took it as a sign to volunteer at the jail. She signed up and taught life skills classes there for three years.

She had long been driven by the desire to bring healing to spaces and, with master’s degrees in theology and anthropology, had held a series of positions embodying that search: She worked as a counselor in a drug recovery program, a live-in caretaker for people with disabilities, and a program director at a homeless shelter.

At Rikers, she developed an appreciation for the unique needs of the incarcerated classroom, where most typical teaching tools, like PowerPoint or retractable pens, are banned. “I found that as a professor, I became incredibly creative, and it forced me to think differently about how I engage this specific group,” she said. She took on another teaching position at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for men in Ossining, New York, and helped administer its program before becoming an academic coordinator at the maximum-security men’s prison Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Shawangunk, New York.

“Many people have misconceptions of what’s happening inside prisons because it’s a community that’s invisible to them,” Malone said. “I don’t necessarily know all of the general population, but I do know a cross-section of the people who choose to voluntarily go to college while they’re inside—who have said, ‘While I’m here, I am going to make something of this time, and learn and contribute.’ And there are brilliant thinkers in that group with wisdom we can benefit from.”

The deeper Malone got into prison education, the more she learned about MMC and its success with its college programs. “When you get to know this space of higher education in prison, you start to learn about some of the programs that have been around for a long time,” she said. “And MMC is one of the most longstanding programs that has been around.”

As she leans into her new role at the Bedford Hills College Program, Malone says she intends to be a good student herself. “My first step is to learn from those who have been here,” she said. “Aileen has run this program for decades and has so much wisdom. So partly, I’m just watching and learning and seeing how she has navigated the different dynamics.”

Still, from her own experiences, Malone already knows that the unglamorous work of administration—finetuning processes and bringing greater clarity to rules—is critical for student success, particularly in corrections facilities dominated by bureaucracy, and is excited to dive in.

“When we have really good administrative systems, people feel seen and heard and are paying attention to their progress as opposed to if their paperwork is getting lost,” she said. “The clearer we are about our policies and how things work, the more they can breathe easily. If we’re really good administrators, then they can do the job of being college students.”

Published: December 21, 2023