ESTA BIGLER: I'm Esta Bigler, and I'm the Director of the Labor and Employment Law Program at the Cornell School of Industrial Labor Relations.
ROBERT SCOTT: My name is Robert Scott. And I am the Executive Director of the Cornell Prison Education program.
ESTA BIGLER: 70 million people in our country have had a relationship to the criminal justice system, have been involved in the criminal justice system, which makes it hard for people to find employment. One of the things we know is that education while you're in prison reduces recidivism, reduces you coming back to the prison society again.
Having employment reduces recidivism. I don't think, at this moment, we're doing the kind of work we should do to help people reenter into a job, reenter into society, reenter to their families. So we're really dealing with a multifaceted issue here.
It's about making sure that people really understand the system, understand how records are maintained, and also how to deal with those records once they're out. Because things will follow them for the rest of their lives if they don't have that kind of information. And it is my hope, with the training that we do, that people begin to have that kind of information, that they feel empowered to take control of their lives in a way that perhaps they've never done before.
ROBERT SCOTT: My position would be that reentry is a very nice sounding word for what's really a very ugly situation in America. When you're in one of these rural prisons, you've watched someone packed out in a jumpsuit and handed two $20 bills. We call it gate money in New York. That number has not been escalated in, I think, at least three decades.
When you're sent to New York, if you're county of return is New York County, Manhattan, I'm pretty sure they send you to Penn Station. And you're basically walking out into Times Square with $40 bucks and a jumpsuit on, and possibly a brown paper bag, stapled closed with your other possessions that they've kept for you.
Most of the prisons around Cornell upstate are maximum security prisons. We're working with folks that are not coming home for a long time. So to me, the logic there would be if this is what society is doing, it's sending people away for decades of time, then we need to think about decades of programming.
That's why we offer a full liberal arts college program. The Cornellians coming from campus are receiving an engaged education that will help them impact a generational shift in how we think about criminal justice in America. While the people we work with in prison are receiving an engaged education in the liberal arts.
In this case, one of their only chances to engage with the normal public in a normal way, where it really isn't about the fact that they're incarcerated. It's about the fact that they're in a history course. It's about the fact that critical thinking involves learning how to write better. It involves formulating a hypothesis and learning what an evidence-based argument is, and when a credible argument is made or when a credible challenge is made to that argument. These are the types of things that we're doing in there.
ESTA BIGLER: One of the things we've been doing at the ILR School is working with employers to answer their questions, to do training about not only their legal responsibilities under the law and the way they are supposed to evaluate someone who they discover has a criminal record, but the benefits of having someone work for them who has a criminal record, the loyalty that that person will show, the fact that that person will give it their all. We really do have a lot of other work to do. And that is work with our employers so that people see the benefits of hiring someone who's been involved in the criminal justice system.
Whether they're just coming out, or they've been out five years or 10 years, because people struggle often, no matter how long they have been out of the system, so to speak. Because, in fact, you're never really out of the system. Because that record follows you wherever you go.
ROBERT SCOTT: When you're actually talking to people, Esta, in the correctional facilities, bringing up the issues around rap sheets, the men are raising their hands to say, this is what happened to me. This is how it went for me. And to have that inform your work, there's nothing more important probably when you're trying to develop a way for people to have an accurate and lawful pathway away from the life of crime, away from the life of incarceration.
ESTA BIGLER: Well, I will tell you that the students at Five Points and the students at [? Q ?] absolutely taught me a great deal about their lives and about the legal system that I have devoted my life to. And so actually, the education is very much a two way street. And I think that the students who are the TAs in your program also are doing that same thing, bringing back the information so that we can change the way our society operates.
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Esta Bigler ’70 of the ILR School's Labor and Employment Law program and Rob Scott of the Cornell Prison Education Program discuss their work with incarcerated men. While Bigler helps prepare incarcerated men for reentry and to rejoin the workforce, Scott’s program offers them the opportunity to earn an associates degree. Listen to the entire conversation here: https://www.ilr.cornell.edu/labor-and-employment-law-program/criminal-justice-employment/interviews-and-conversations