In the next week, the Obama administration will let 6,000 drug offenders walk free, the largest release of its kind. The release is a big step towards reducing mass incarceration and clearing out our over-crowded prisons, but also makes this question all the more urgent: What will happen to all those people when they rejoin society?
Nixon may be a rare success story, as our system seems to be set up to make reentry as difficult as possible. A criminal record can create a massive barrier to everything from finding a place to live — many people with criminal records are barred from public housing — to getting a job or into college. As such, recividism rates remain painfully high, and the cycle of incarceration becomes hard to escape.
Refinery29 spoke to Nixon about how she got involved with this issue and why being free isn’t the end of a person’s post-incarceration struggle. Our conversation was edited and condensed.
Tell me about the day you found out you'd be going to prison.
"My lawyer told me the prosecutor was offering a deal, and I decided to accept it, and I was given a date to turn myself in. A friend of mine drove me to the district attorney’s office, and in that car ride there was a Kirk Franklin song playing. Kirk Franklin is a gospel artist, and the song that was playing was called ‘He’ll Take the Pain Away.’ And I was sitting there thinking that there’s no way that the pain I feel right now, the embarrassment, the hurt, the sense of hopelessness, is ever going to go away.
“I went into a holding cell in Nassau County court. It was really the most horrible conditions. You had no privacy at all. There’s an open toilet in the cell. It was just a horrible, horrible experience.
“What got me out of that is looking back over my life and seeing other times when I had felt utterly alone and like I had failed, and realizing that I had overcome those times. I had already stopped using drugs, already stopped committing crimes, already had a good job and an apartment. Things were going great for me. So I said, ‘You know, if I can do it then, I can do it again.’ And that’s what got me through.”
I was thinking, there’s no way that the pain I feel right now, the embarrassment, the hurt, the hopelessness, is ever going to go away.
You did not have access to education when you were incarcerated. Is that right?
“No, I didn’t. And I was actually devastated. I really did always know that education was really important, but life happens and I didn’t manage to do well in college for a variety of reasons. Emotional immaturity, even bouts of depression and anxiety. And I flunked out. And after I flunked out of college, I had issues with drugs and ended up in prison.
“So the serendipitous thing is that the prison I was sent to first is called Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. They had a college program, and I was actually looking forward to enrolling in it. Then, within two weeks, I was transferred to Albion Correctional Facility, which is near the Canadian border, and they had no college program.
“I felt that that would have been a really great opportunity for me to get my life back onto track. Instead, I was sent to a facility where there was really no opportunity for me to improve my life chances because I already had a high school diploma, so the GED program was not appropriate for me.”
“I always knew that the first thing I was going to do when I got out was go back to school.
So you were 41 when you were released in 2001. How did you end up deciding to go back to school?
“I always knew that the first thing I was going to do when I got out was go back to school. I got such a profound understanding of how important education is when I ended up in prison with women my mother’s age who could barely write their name. It hit me like a ton of bricks that I had screwed up opportunity in my life, that I had had access before I ever got involved in criminal activity, and that I pissed it all away. Excuse my language.”
But you had some help?
“The great thing is that I ran into this organization, College and Community Fellowship, which had just started a year earlier. And their mission was to help women go back to college. So it just was — it's like everything came together for me at that time.
“It’s really horrendous that schools have decided that a person who decides that ‘Now I want to go back to school and really change my life,’ they’re not willing to be the institution that facilitates that process, which is antithetical to the mission of most schools.”
“So beyond reducing recidivism, education changes one’s perspective on their place in the world and what’s possible for them to achieve."
What does your program do, and what are you working on now?
“We provide academic support, financial support, and social support to women who are going to college post-release. There is a lot of attention being paid to criminal-justice reform right now. And the conversation around access to post-secondary education has ramped up, so we are working on several fronts in that area.”
Tell me a little bit more about what the benefits are. I know we've seen strong numbers about how it reduces recidivism.
“So beyond reducing recidivism, it really changes one’s perspective on their place in the world and what’s possible for them to achieve. You know, one might get convicted of a crime, go to prison, come home, not see the world any differently, and reengage in the same behaviors because they really don’t have any framework to do something different. Education provides that bigger space where you can imagine yourself to do something else with your life.”
Can you share the stories of any of the people you are working with now?
“So there’s one student we had who went to several other organizations in New York City when she got out of prison. And they asked her what she wanted to do and she said, ‘Well, I want to be a nurse.’ And the response from a lot of organizations was, ‘We can find you a work assignment. It's probably gonna be minimum wage, but you shouldn’t be thinking about being a nurse because with your background that’s probably not gonna be possible.’
“We take the opposite approach. We said to her, ‘It’s gonna be difficult, but we’ll figure out how to help you do that. And in the meantime, you know, you may have to work a job that’s not in your field or not in your — not even on your trajectory, but it will help you survive. In the meantime, you’re gonna go to school and we’re gonna figure out how to get past the barriers.’
“So we helped her get what’s called a certificate of good conduct from the state. We helped her get through the nursing program. We helped her fill out the ethics questionnaire and got the references she needed, and eventually she became a licensed registered nurse.”
Education provides that bigger space where you can imagine yourself to do something else with your life.
“Housing. If you don’t have a stable, safe place to live, it’s hard to go to work every day. It’s hard to go to school. It’s hard to get medical treatment. People need a safe and decent place to live. Especially here in New York City.
“When you come out of prison with — I think it’s now up to a hundred dollars in your pocket — in some cases you can’t go back and live with your family because they don’t want you, or because they live in public housing and the Public Housing Authority has decided that if you have a certain conviction you can’t return to public housing.
“So people can't move back into public housing and the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in New York City is $2,500. A studio is almost $2,000. So housing is the biggest issue that I see as a problem with our clients.”
What is the ideal scenario? What’s the best we could be doing?
“The best we could be doing is, of course, providing more transitional housing, but also realizing that when people get out prison they’re starting from zero much of the time. And putting barriers in place, like not letting them go back into public housing or not even letting them get public-assistance funds for 90 days are antithetical to people’s successful reentry. I mean, people are working across the country to change these policies, but it's a huge ship to try to turn around, and it's not gonna turn around overnight.”
There’s sort of a little bit of a shift in the culture when it comes to prisons. Are we right for feeling a little optimism?
“I am extremely hopeful at this time. And I happen to think that this is gonna move right into the next administration. There is such a unified understanding that we cannot continue to incarcerate people at the rates we’ve incarcerated them. We've gotten to the point where nearly a third of Americans have some kind of criminal-history record on file. That’s insane.”
Yeah, it’s crazy.
“Yeah. So yes, I'm optimistic.”
You can read more about Vivian Nixon's organization, CCF, here.