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The Power of Prison Education: MMC Marks Anniversary at Bedford Hills, Celebrates Program Alums

Though MMC has been the sole degree-granting institution for the college program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, New York, since 1997, this year holds special meaning for the relationship: September marks the 20th anniversary of when the program was officially deemed an extension campus of MMC. We’ll be celebrating and sharing the stories of Bedford Hills students and alums, like Monica Szlekovics ’09, all year long.

Not long after Monica Szlekovics ’09 enrolled in MMC’s college program at Bedford Hills, a maximum-security correctional facility for women, she headed to the office of then-director Benay Rubenstein, determined to drop out.

In her 20s and facing a multi-decade prison sentence, Szlekovics had decided there was no sense in obtaining a college degree. What’s more, that particular day weighed heavily on her. “It happened to be the anniversary of my crime,” she said. “More than anything, that pushed me to say I would withdraw. I felt that I didn’t deserve the opportunity,” she said.

But she never made it in to see Rubenstein; instead, she bumped into Judy Clark, a trusted voice at the facility, who had served nearly two decades in prison herself by then.

Just a few years earlier, Clark had been one of seven Bedford Hills students who campaigned to create the present-day college program after federal backing for prison education was cut in 1994. The loss of funding had caused an existing program at Bedford Hills run by Mercy College to be eliminated. However, students would find an ally in Marymount Manhattan and former president Regina Peruggi, Ph.D., who led partnering colleges in contributing faculty and resources to the program, with MMC conferring degrees.

Clark, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees while at Bedford Hills, urged Szlekovics to stay enrolled. “Judy told me that one of the best things you can do to honor the people you’ve harmed is to get an education,” Szlekovics said. “The thought stuck with me and encouraged me throughout my time there to stay in college. Because part of honoring the people you’ve harmed is change, and change involves getting an education.”

Szlekovics paced herself, using the next decade to take classes she enjoyed, such as psychology, and read literature she hadn’t been exposed to before.

It was a marked difference from her past educational experiences. Her childhood was so turbulent that she frequently missed school and, as a young person, felt detached from the world of classrooms and textbooks. “It’d be hard for me to describe school as something I liked or didn’t like,” she said. “It just didn’t fit my life for reasons beyond my control.” She dropped out at 16 and later earned her GED before doing part of a semester at a community college.

As she immersed herself in the Bedford Hills College program, she found education to be a powerful, clarifying lens.

“It helped me understand my life in the broader context,” Szlekovics said. “And the engagement I had with the teachers and other students made me feel like my humanity still existed. It may have only existed in that little pocket of time during classes, but it existed.”

Szlekovics graduated in 2009 but stayed close to the program, working with current director Aileen Baumgartner as an administrative assistant. She would also spend her days volunteering in the parenting center and participating in therapy.

Then, in 2020, she became one of 11 women to receive clemency from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who, in commuting her sentence, recognized that her conviction had been the result of extreme domestic violence.

Szlekovics was released at the age of 43, and though she would know freedom for the first time in decades, it came amid the Covid-19 pandemic and brought its own complications.

“It felt like a false start in a way,” she said. “You come out, and you’re expected to start over, but then you’re stalled because everything shut down.” The state’s lockdown also triggered familiar feelings of being incarcerated. “You’re isolated in the same way,” she said.

Today, however, Szlekovics has found peace and opportunities to support both prison education and victims of domestic violence. She is a project coordinator for the Survivors Justice Project, a collective of domestic violence survivors, currently and formerly incarcerated women, activists, lawyers, students, and researchers.

The engagement I had with the teachers and other students made me feel like my humanity still existed.” –Monica Szlekovics ’09

The organization was formed in 2019 after the passage of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, which gives courts more leeway to consider survivors’ abuse when sentencing or resentencing those who commit offenses. The group monitors the law’s application and assists survivors who need to access the law’s relief.

Szlekovics joined as an advisory member before becoming staff. “It really grounds me because it’s work that I know, work that I’m committed to, and work that I find meaningful,” she said. “It’s cathartic in a way that some people who’ve had my experiences [with domestic violence] may shy away from, but I’ve seemed to gravitate towards.”

She continues to cheer on Bedford Hills College Program students and alums. Upon her release in 2020, she again took on the role of program assistant, helping to keep courses running through the pandemic.

She also worked with Erin Greenwell, MMC’s Ferraro Fellow in Prison Education and an associate communication and media arts professor, on programs meant to unite students at all three of MMC’s learning sites—the 71st Street campus, Bedford Hills, and the Taconic Correctional Facility, where MMC has awarded degrees since 2019.

“A lot of people think the value of education is in the degree and what job you’re going to get,” Szlekovics said. “But it’s about more than that. Education builds you up as an individual and speaks to your humanity, two things that are lacking inside a corrections setting.”

Published: January 30, 2024