“I spent my 40th birthday on Rikers Island,” Lee Melendez told me recently. “I’ve always had a problem with humility, and you can bet that was a wake-up call.” Melendez and I were sitting in a conference room on Northern Boulevard near the Queens entrance to the 59th Street Bridge, under the elevated subway tracks where they bend north toward Astoria. Melendez, 44, whose pinstriped suit hid the imposing frame of a bodybuilder, wore a dark tie and a silver-colored engagement ring. Having recently been incarcerated for three years on drug charges, he now works as a substance abuse counselor and is completing his bachelor’s degree in social work at Lehman College in the Bronx. “No matter where you come from and what you’ve done,” he continued, “you have to dig in and thrive. Being in jail gives you the drive to never return. I will never go back.”
We spoke at the offices of College Initiative – an organization that helps former inmates obtain a college education – where Melendez had been a student and now works as a peer mentor. College Initiative offers counseling, college prep classes and tutoring, as well as assistance with housing, financial aid and the long, complex process of readjustment to life outside prison. An educator named Benay Rubenstein founded the organization in 2002 in response to the near elimination of in-prison college education during the previous decade. In 1994, Congress barred inmates from access to Pell grants, a federal aid program for low-income students and the main source of funding for college initiatives in prisons; New York followed suit, making its inmates ineligible for the state’s TAP grants. By 1997, roughly 400 in-prison college programs around the country had dwindled to eight.
Like many prison-reform advocates, Rubenstein believed that education was the key to improving the lives of former inmates and keeping them out of the criminal justice system. Statistics back up that notion. Nationwide, roughly two thirds of inmates released from prison end up back in jail; those with a GED or high-school diploma are just half as likely to return. Michael Carey, who replaced Rubenstein as the organization’s director in 2009, says that among College Initiative students who’ve attempted even a single semester of college, the recidivism rate drops to 3.2 percent. And none of those who chose to mentor others in the program had returned to prison.
Carey points out that the patterns of incarceration in New York are a virtual shadow of the patterns of poverty. A typical inmate attends an underfunded and failing public school before entering the criminal justice system. In some of New York’s poorest communities, the state now spends more than a million dollars per city block on corrections. And only one in 50 prisoners is a college graduate. “In some ways, incarceration is a life sentence,” said Carey, pointing out that those convicted of a felony face lifelong difficulties with finding housing and employment, earning competitive salaries and even reclaiming their ability to vote upon release. “The work we do comes out of a responsibility to assist these individuals in transforming their lives.”
Lee Melendez’s background is hardly an unusual one among College Initiative students. When he was 13, growing up near Brook Avenue and 138th Street in the Bronx, his parents began smoking crack cocaine. “They no longer cared whether I was home, and there wasn’t food in the apartment,” Melendez said. “So by 16 I was living on the streets. I became a father myself soon after and began to sell crack to support my family. And I was using marijuana, cocaine, even heroin.” At the time of the arrest that led to his first prison sentence, police officers found bundles of crack in his car; Melendez was 20. It was in prison that he completed his GED and accumulated three semesters of college credit. Still, upon his release a couple of years ago, he found himself in a dark-blue jumpsuit, cleaning streets on Manhattan’s West Side. He credits College Initiative with helping him enroll in college and find work as a counselor. After graduation, he plans to continue on to a master’s program and eventually earn a Ph.D. Melendez mentors five students who’ve recently entered college. “They’ve been to my house, we’ve studied together, I’ve gone with them to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. It makes me feel good. I only wish I had that help when I was a kid.”
According to Cassandra Jones, a longtime teacher and an academic counselor with College Initiative, the most difficult hurdle for recently released inmates is rebuilding confidence and self-esteem. “Some of our students find themselves the oldest person in a college classroom filled with 18-year-olds,” she said. “They’re often intimidated by expectations of how difficult college can be, and talking to others about their background carries a stigma.” Jones said that her own experience in prison, following a drug conviction, helps students relax around her and trust her. Still, in dealing with the preconceptions of potential employers, Jones counsels them to be steadfast and tough. “When someone finds out you’ve done time, their willingness to hire you can evaporate,” she says. “So I always tell our students to stand their ground and not simply accept a quick ‘no.’” For those attempting to reestablish their lives, the ability to change attitudes is a particularly vital reason to earn a college diploma. “With a degree on your resume, you’re offering evidence instead of just talk,” Jones says. “Now you’re showing them that you’ve done something positive.”
Alex Halberstadt is the author of Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Salon, and other publications.