Overcoming Odds, Now Helping Others

Bruce Andres NoahBy Tom Mooney

Originally Posted in The Providence Journal Jul. 25, 2015.

All three men served prison time for serious crimes. All three got out and, against insurmountable odds, graduated from law school. Two are lawyers. And now, convinced of the power of knowledge to change any life, they have formed a nonprofit foundation that provides scholarships for inmates approaching release to pursue higher education.

The Transcending Through Education Foundation was started by former inmates Andres Idarraga, Noah Kilroy and Bruce Reilly. Idarraga served several years in the Adult Correctional Institutions on drug charges. Released in 2004, he earned two degrees from Brown University before earning a law degree from Yale in 2011. He now practices complex litigation at a law firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Kilroy served time for various drug felonies between the ages of 16 and 23 before he was released in 2003 from a Florida prison and devoted his life to learning. He is now a lawyer and an assistant city solicitor in Providence.

Reilly served 12 years at the ACI for second-degree murder. He graduated from Tulane Law School last year and works as a writer and organizer for several social causes, including securing voting rights and employment for former offenders.

“We wanted to give back — or at least reach back — and let people know how they can do this,” said Reilly.

The foundation awards scholarships of up to $1,000 to any accredited institution for individuals who are coming out of prison determined to improve their lives. The foundation also provides mentoring services — primarily through the foundation’s three founders — to help guide ex-convicts through the college experience.

“We are filling an unmet need,” says Kilroy, noting that Congress banned Pell Grant eligibility for ex-convicts in 1994.

Kilroy says criminals should be punished, as he was, for breaking the law. “But if you really want them to stay out of prison, well, let’s make sure they have the tools to do so. In our [three] cases education stopped the criminal behavior.”

“There is a wealth of untapped potential over there” at the Adult Correctional Institutions, says Kilroy. “I wasn’t even the smartest guy in my cell block. And that’s the point here. In each of our stories we would not be where we are now without the help and mentoring we received.”

— tmooney@providencejournal.com

From Prison to College: Here’s Why Education Matters

TTEFMay 29th is the second #ProofPointDay, an annual celebration to bring visibility and voice to the hundreds of thousands of first-generation college graduates (FGs) in the US — reinforcing what is possible and inspiring the next generation. #ProofPointDay is the fellowship project created by Pahara-Aspen Fellow Chastity Lord.

Andres Idarraga, Noah Kilroy, and Bruce Reilly are all FGs and founders of  Transcending Through Education Foundation (TTEF), which supports the higher education efforts of people in or transitioning out of prison.

Before we all went to college, we went to prison. In that unlikely place, we began our educational journeys. We discussed books while walking the prison yard — sharpening our minds, and in the process, more deeply understanding ourselves. We kept each other accountable to a daily study regime. We paid our last dollar on correspondence college courses, and applied to universities while still behind bars. We left prison and entered college. Today, we all have law degrees.

We founded Transcending Through Education Foundation  (TTEF) with a shared mission to help the countless future FGs behind prison bars.

We know from both statistics and experience that education is the single greatest purveyor of stability for people with conviction histories. Yet, the educational needs and hopes of people in prison have been systemically overlooked.

In 1994, when Congress eliminated Pell Grant eligibility for people in prison, the programs that did exist dwindled to a very few. All this despite the overwhelming evidence that prison education programs work: the recidivism rate for unemployed, non-high school inmates is nearly 50 percent, compared with 17 percent for employed, college program participants. A recent Rand Corporation study also found these programs cost-effective against re-incarceration.

The longstanding effort to restore Pell Grant eligibility has finally taken root as individual education is increasingly recognized for its broader community-building and public safety values. Children in prison have recently regained eligibility, and legislation for a full restoration is pending in Congress.

As FGs, we know the value of an educational lifeline, especially when a person hits rock bottom. We also know the value of role models. Few people in prison have a college education or go on to get one after release. Over 10 years ago, still in prison, Bruce asked Andres if he knew anyone in prison who had gone to college. Andres replied that he knew no one.

TTEF is changing this reality. Since TTEF was founded in 2012, we have awarded nine scholarships and grants in Rhode Island (our home state and where we all served our prison time) to people who are taking college courses while in prison or after they have been released. TTEF plans to replicate its model in more states.

The vast majority of our award winners are first-generation college students. We have conducted workshops for nearly 500 incarcerated individuals in every prison facility throughout Rhode Island. TTEF’s workshops take on the very issues that we found ourselves navigating alone, without a blueprint or role model: applying to college and for financial aid with a criminal conviction, managing personal finances, and dealing with the stigma of being a formerly incarcerated FG, to name a few.

This July marks TTEF’s third scholarship cycle. Like TTEF’s founders, our award winners will face challenges. In general, more than a quarter of low-income first-generation college students leave after their first year in college and close to 90 percent fail to graduate within six years. Our awardees will face additional hurdles.

Whether you are a FG, future FG, or an FG ally, we encourage you to be visible and vocal on May 29th by visiting http://www.proofpointday.org and wearing green.

Incarcerated Students Encouraged to Apply for TTEF’s College Scholarship

TTEFThe spring season is an important time for college applicants, with essays to be written and due dates arising. This flurry is no different for incarcerated students. The Transcending Through Education Foundation (“TTEF”) is pleased to announce the opening of their third scholarship application window, and excited to discover more students seeking assistance in pursuit of higher education, whether they live behind prison walls or are on the journey back to society.

Higher education is the most effective manner to ensure someone finds promising opportunities following a conviction. The federal government recently clarified that the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated people does not apply to over 60,000 people in juvenile facilities. The Department of Education believes this may offer support to roughly 4,000 young people with a GED or high school diploma. This clarification was part of the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice’s Guiding Principles for Providing High-Quality Education in Juvenile Justice Secure Care Settings. The government is showing collaborative leadership from its Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which can and should be modeled on the state level.

A new report by The Center for Community Alternatives, Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition, explains just how challenging it is for people with criminal histories to access higher education. These challenges often deter people from even reaching a point where a committee determines their eligibility. As a recent article explains, even when universities in the New York state system try not to discriminate, applicants feel otherwise.

In California, the James Irvine Foundation has recognized the important contribution of the Prison University Project (PUP), providing executive director Jody Lewen with a 2015 Leadership Award. The recognition comes with $200,000 to support the work of providing college education from established universities in the San Francisco Bay Area. The work of PUP, the Bard College Initiative, and others serve as role models for TTEF.

TTEF began as a bold idea of three formerly incarcerated men who wanted to give back by providing college scholarships and mentorships to people in prison or transitioning out of prison. Andres Idarraga, Noah Kilroy, and Bruce Reilly pooled their resources to do so, and created workshops based on their experiences applying to college. Dozens of their colleagues have provided further resources, and the Foundation is poised to take another leap forward by creating a full-time staff position and increasing its reach.

Over the past year, TTEF has expanded its board, supported additional scholars, given multiple workshops, and Andres presented a compelling Tedx presentation. Most importantly, TTEF serves as a touchstone for many on, or trying to join, a pathway to a productive life.

To learn more about TTEF and to support the furtherance of higher education, read more on our blog, here, and go to http://www.transcendingthrougheducation.org.

Please also consider supporing TTEF by clicking here and making a donation.

Federal Government Offers Education Guidance for Incarcerated Children

a_eduALEXANDRIA, Va. – U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder today announced a Correctional Education Guidance Package aimed at helping states and local agencies strengthen the quality of education services provided to America’s estimated 60,000 young people in confinement every day.

This guidance package builds on recommendations in the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force reportreleased in May to “reform the juvenile and criminal justice systems to reduce unnecessary interactions for youth and to enforce the rights of incarcerated youth to a quality education.” Today’s guidance package is a roadmap that states and local agencies can use to improve the quality of educational services for confined youth.

“Students in juvenile justice facilities need a world-class education and rigorous coursework to help them successfully transition out of facilities and back into the classroom or the workforce becoming productive members of society. Young people should not fall off-track for life just because they come into contact with the justice system,” Duncan said.

“In this great country, all children deserve equal access to a high-quality public education – and this is no less true for children in the juvenile justice system,” said Attorney General Holder.  “At the Department of Justice, we are working tirelessly to ensure that every young person who’s involved in the system retains access to the quality education they need to rebuild their lives and reclaim their futures. We hope and expect this guidance will offer a roadmap for enhancing these young people’s academic and social skills, and reducing the likelihood of recidivism.”

“Today’s announcement directly responds to the call to action made by President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. It is imperative that we ensure that incarcerated youth are receiving a quality education and provide them with the necessary tools for a second chance. I applaud Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary Arne Duncan for highlighting this critical issue,” said Broderick Johnson, White House Cabinet Secretary and Chair of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force.

The guidance package includes four components:

“High-quality correctional education is thus one of the most effective crime-prevention tools we have,” Duncan and Holder wrote in a dear colleague letter to chief state school officers and state attorneys general. “High-quality correctional education – including postsecondary correctional education, which can be supported by Federal Pell Grants – has been shown to measurably reduce re-incarceration rates. Less crime means not only lower prison costs – it also means safer communities.”

The President has set a goal that, by 2020, our nation will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world and that all Americans complete at least one year or more of college or career training. The Administration believes that even youth in correctional facilities can play their part in helping us achieve that vision.

For young people who are incarcerated, access to a high-quality education during their confinement is a vitally important and cost-effective strategy for ensuring they become productive members of their communities. The average cost to confine a juvenile is $88,000 per year – and a recent study showed that about 55 percent of youth were rearrested within 12 months of release. Inmates of all ages are half as likely to go back to jail if they participate in higher education – even compared to inmates with similar histories.

This joint effort by the departments of Education and Justice is one of a number of notable actions that they have taken to ensure that education programming in juvenile justice residential facilities is comparable to services provided in any school. The departments have been working together to help communities reduce the number of youth entering the justice system and to ensure that those in the system return to their communities with dignity, skills and viable education and employment opportunities including the following efforts this year:

  • Education and Justice jointly released a School Climate and Discipline Guidance Package to provide schools with a roadmap to reduce the usage of exclusionary discipline practice and clarify schools’ civil rights obligation to not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin in the administration of school discipline.
  • Education released the results of the 2011-2012 Civil Rights Data Collection, which includes school discipline data from most every school in the country and certain juvenile justice facilities.
  • Education and Justice filed a joint Statement of Interest in the G.F. v. Contra Costa County lawsuit in support of confined youth with disabilities who alleged that they were placed in solitary confinement for 22 hours or more per day, discriminated against on the basis of their disability, and denied their right to a free, appropriate public education.
  • Duncan and Holder met with leaders from 22 agencies for a Federal Interagency Reentry Council meeting to discuss actions to reduce reentry barriers to employment, health, housing, and education for individuals who are transitioning from incarceration to community.
  • Education and Justice engaged with various philanthropies to commission a School Discipline Consensus Project, led by the Council of State Governments, to bring together practitioners from the fields of education, juvenile justice, behavioral health, and law enforcement, to develop recommendations to address the school-to-prison pipeline, including recommendations for strengthening services to youth in confinement.
  • Education and Justice coordinated and supported the National Leadership Summit on School Climate and Discipline in Washington, D.C. The summit focused on deepening partnerships between local and state education and justice officials and community stakeholders.

All youth are deserving of an appropriate, high-quality education. This guidance package clarifies that obligation for confined youth, as well as advocating that they have a real chance at a second chance in their lives. A solid education that unleashes and expands their potential to contribute to their communities is a step in the right direction.

Math in Prison: It’s all about Time

“The world of mathematics exists in an eternal present, a state in which neither the past nor the future have any meaning” -Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

greek-mult-2In prison, time is everything.  Prisoners obsess over it, and are as much imprisoned by time as by the physical structures that make up the prisons.  This becomes apparent when you talk to incarcerated people. They become experts in measuring things using units of time. I’ve heard people tell me the number of seconds that they spent living within the bricks, cement, steel and stones that make up the prison.

The simplest measurement breaks all of time into three parts: the past, the present, and the future. We only exist in the present, but we are often judged by our pasts when charting our futures. For some people, their past is an asset–this is why we have resumes. To others, especially those that have spent part of their pasts in prison, the past is a burden. The Rhode Island Department of Corrections (“RIDOC”) provides educational opportunities to inmates “to help them become productive and law-abiding members of the community.” The theory is that a past that contains an education can transcend a past that contains some criminality. The TTEF Founders are a testament that this strategy works. What we do in our present becomes our past and helps dictate our future.

I’d like to see an expansion in the mathematics offerings at the RIDOC, particularly because the current demand for math skills in our economy is so high. The main ingredient to the successful study of mathematics is time. Dr. Jean Marie Linhart of Texas Tech University compared math to running–just like you have to train your body to run 10 miles, you have to train your mind to do “10 miles worth” of math. Mathematics requires practice and contemplation–both of which take time. The past provides us with examples of mathematicians making great discoveries while in prison. Jakow Trachtenberg developed his system for calculation while imprisoned by the Nazis. During WWII, Andre Weil was imprisoned for being a conscientious objector to war and attempting to flee conscription. During his imprisonment, he wrote letters to his sister, one of which became the basis of some of his fundamental work in algebraic geometry. Currently, math skills are in high demand, and the future outlook for mathematicians is very bright. Technical fields may be an area where criminal histories are more easily overcome since these fields are often more concerned with your skills and proficiencies than with the scarlet branding of a criminal history.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once wrote: “the world of mathematics exists in an eternal present, a state in which neither the past nor the future have any meaning.” It is perhaps paradoxical that something that requires so much time to master can actually free someone from the prison of time. Expanding the mathematics offerings in prison will provide a constructive way to fill up the present, and expand the opportunities available to the students upon release. The study of mathematics provides broad and transferable skills. It’s a skill set that is applicable in a wide range of industries and would allow a formerly incarcerated person to find a career that is more interested in the present than in their past.

Cris Potter is an advisory board of TTEF.  He is also a volunteer Math instructor at the RIDOC.

TTEF Awards College Scholarships and Grants to Incarcerated Students

TTEFWe are happy to announce our latest college scholarship and grant winners!

We thank our supporters for helping to fund these impressive educational journeys!  This year we had an increase in applications, thus making our decisions extremely difficult.

We awarded two scholarships, one renewal scholarship, and five smaller grants this year.  One scholar is a woman recently released from prison who will continue her education at the Community College of Rhode Island.  She ultimately plans to become a counselor for adolescents.  The other scholar is soon to be released, and after already earning his Associate’s Degree he now plans to study Computer Science at a four-year college.  One renewal scholarship went to a previous scholar who continues along his path to a Master’s Degree while still incarcerated.

We are fortunate this year to also award smaller grants to people taking exams for college credits.  Five grantees now have funding to take three of these exams.

TTEF looks forward to working with these students as they continue their educational path.  TTEF was founded to provide educational resources and support to people in prison, or transitioning out of prison, who are pursuing higher education.  We hope to turn the School-to-Prison pipeline into a Prison-to-School pipeline.  We congratulate everyone who has made or is making this positive change, whether you are working on your first college credit or are finishing your degree!

Keep up with us via our blog and Facebook.  And please consider making a donation through our website.  We thank you in advance!

TTEF Founders Third, and Final, Post-Prison Law Degree

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Andres Idarraga, Bruce Reilly, and Norris Henderson.

What an amazing year to be part of the Class of 2014.   In Seattle, Shon Hopwood graduated from the University of Washington School of Law. In Miami, Desmond Meade graduated from Florida International University College of Law. In New York, Marty Tankleff graduated from Touro Law Center.   Their achievements help me put my own degree from Tulane University Law School in perspective. We collectively represent over forty-two years in prison, in cages to be more accurate, and now hold certification that we “officially” understand the fundamentals of the American legal system.

We aren’t the first people to go from being subjected to the law to ultimately navigate its corridors. The list is long and varied, every one unique, and each showing the diverse paths into (and out of) the most miserable space one could be stuck inside. These people, all public with their pasts, include Dan Manville (Antioch ’81), Chris Ochoa (U. Wisconsin ’06), Daryl Atkinson (St. Thomas ’07), TTEF Founder Andres Idarraga (Yale, ’11), TTEF Founder Noah Kilroy (Roger Williams, ’13), and soon to include Jarrett Adams (Loyola-Chicago, ’15) and Pete Martell (Wayne State ’16).  Some were proven innocent (Tankleff, Ochoa, Adams), but for much of their lives they were not treated as such. Many of us were practicing law while in prison as Jailhouse Lawyers, which is why I say we “officially” joined the ranks of those with a Juris Doctorate degree. I filed my first bail motion and memorandum when some of my classmates were in kindergarten and have over two decades of experience covering all aspects of the courts and prisons.

A guy in prison once told me that after I got out and made my millions of dollars, I would forget all about the past and people like him. After graduating last weekend, the guy’s point about staying grounded and not losing touch is as important as ever. Of course, I need not try hard to be reminded about who I am and where I come from. My life is overwhelmingly intertwined with the criminal justice system, and the people struggling to create healthier responses to social ills. We can’t cage everyone without a home or a job, we can’t lock up addiction, nor will a military-grade police force stop anger, greed, depression, and insanity.

Last week, I was reviewing scholarship applications for Transcending Through Education Foundation (TTEF). All of the applicants are currently incarcerated, and over half of them are teenagers trying to get some funding for a college education. One essay that truly left an impact upon me spoke about the success of getting rid of every “friend.” In his environment, all his peers were forging a negative path and success was to be entirely alone. Tragic, yet real.  I want to share with him there are more levels for him to achieve.

We need to empty the container, wash it out, and refill with something pure. Prison can serve this purpose and, as they say: “you know who your friends are when you go to prison.” Friends have been essential to my journey, including those from before, during, and after prison. Who can imagine writing someone for over a decade with no guarantee to ever see each other in the free world again? Who is bold and hopeful enough to talk about college educations, business proposals, and families from cage to cage? Who is strong enough to stand by you when their loved ones are begging them to stay away? Friends are.

People who have been in prison face all sorts of hurdles, regardless of whether they are “deserved” or not.  I applied to over thirty law schools.  One Dean of Admissions met me at a forum in New York City: Susan Krinsky.  She was the only person willing to put her neck on the line and admit me.  Every other school declined.  As the negative media would later play out, about a “convicted murderer in law school,” her courage should never be forgotten.  The vaunted NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (NAACP-LDF), founded by none other than Thurgood Marshall, also made a decision to accept me into their family, and that too has been an honor.  Similarly, two professors at Tulane (Jancy Hoeffel and Katherine Mattes) helped me through those early months of adversity along with dozens of amazing new friends who were also just trying to focus on their homework.  And ultimately, being part of an organization, Voice of the Ex-Offender, (VOTE) was crucial to my keeping my footing when people try their damnedest to dislodge me.  We need each other, whether you have been in prison or not.

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Artwork by Steven Parkhurst.

I was at Andres Idarraga’s graduations from both Brown and Yale. Many states have rules barring parolees and probationers from interacting with any convicted felon. I gave him framed artwork from an incarcerated friend, Steven Parkhurst, who is also one of TTEF’s inaugural scholars. Last week, when I walked the aisle with my daughter, it would have been incomplete if Andres were not there, along with two other men exonerated in Louisiana, Norris Henderson and Calvin Duncan. When Andres gave me a picture Steve made for me, the tears started to flow. The journey can be overwhelming at times- both the pain and the joy of it all.

Recently, an artist remarked how he was afraid that by me going to law school, the social justice community would lose me into the corporate morass of money-making lawyers. It surprised me that anyone would think this way. As Glenn Martin, another formerly incarcerated man, once told me: ‘Success isn’t when everyone gets out of prison and becomes a full-time advocate against the current criminal justice system. We need to be successful across the entire spectrum of society.’ To a certain degree, we possibly already are; but that’s because most people aren’t “Out” in their daily lives.

I am the last of the three TTEF founders to earn a law degree: Andres in 2011 and Noah in 2013. We all came to this path from a different route and perspective. It is interesting to consider we have different ethnic backgrounds, served different stretches of time in prison, and for different crimes. Our friendship, along with others who were incarcerated with us, serves to ground and guide our paths. My twenty years of legal advocacy started with a bail motion for another prisoner and extends to all aspects of policy change across the country. This part of my work will remain whether I open a café, launch a film production company, or work for a non-profit.

In the words of Tyler Durdin, “We are not our jobs.” Our work may provide us with an opportunity to do good things, whether on the job or while off duty. Or we may need to take some stepping stones—especially for those of us not sitting on a family fortune or a vast network prepared to support an endeavor. If Jay-Z calls tomorrow and says I need you to negotiate sneaker deals for his new NBA players, that would be a gateway not a finish line. Besides, I can use a new pair of sneakers myself.

Despite the headlines, only a small part of the legal realm is criminal law. I never wanted to be a criminal defense attorney (I know plenty of great ones) and there wasn’t much more for me to learn in that area. I concentrated my studies on intellectual property (copyright, patent, and trademark) and the Internet. The future of our legal system might actually  be summarized by Monsanto, Net Neutrality and Edward Snowden, as we struggle to determine who and what is under control. My contributions are likely to come with projects I do in my spare time, as we are in an age of hostility towards controversial people in academia. This has been the pattern of my entire life, as I have generally paid my bills with jobs outside the legal/policy realm.

I’m sure Shon, Desmond, and Marty get hit with the same question I get: “So what’s next?” I’m guessing they have better answers than myself. Shon is a published author with some highly esteemed supporters. Desmond has been a leading figure in the Florida re-enfranchisement campaign and found considerable support for his inspiring journey. Marty now has no criminal record and is a member of the Innocence Project network. Some of us, however, have histories that are more challenging to digest.  Those who only hear about the successes are simply not privy to all the rejections, and to those who simply ignore us.

This is not the year for me to try taking the Bar and being a licensed attorney, for reasonsI have previously written. Those who push me do not realize that it is the one aspect of my life where I am forced to be pessimistic, particularly as I am still on felony probation. That status alone would likely suspend someone’s law license until it were finished, therefore it is difficult to imagine even the most forgiving panel finding me morally fit to practice law. Those who know me will realize that I’ve only made it this far due to an undaunted diet of hope and optimism, and I would rather dream about other things.  I still can’t vote in Louisiana and there are many jobs I’m legally barred from holding, but I’m used to a low percentage of success.  People like us just have to try more doors and spend more time doing it.

I am currently working on a book about the criminal justice system and a screenplay about wrongful convictions in New Orleans. I’m open to part-time and project work, and would like to get myself “artsy” again. I can’t speak for Shon, Desmond, and Marty but the conversation need not always be about “What’s Next” in life.  Sometimes we need to pause and recognize what we just did.  Who’da thunk it?