Prison cell (145130)

Former Bedford Hills inmate Iris Bowen has gained her independence through education.

New York City-based nonprofit College and Community Fellowship is helping formerly incarcerated women continue with college, providing immediate access to tutoring, counseling, stipends and mentoring.

“College and Community Fellowship is a wonderful example of taking advantage of every possibility you might have in your life,” said Douglas Wood, program officer at the Ford Foundation’s Higher Education for Social Justice Initiative.

As a recent graduate of the CCF program, Bowen holds a master’s degree in social work and is the program coordinator for the Coming Home program at the Spencer Cox Center.

She explained that CCF provided her with sustainability and progress.

“There were times I thought, ‘Forget it, I’m not going to finish,’” Bowen said. “Coming to CCF and having mentors makes a great difference.”

CCF alumnae Executive Director Vivian Nixon explained the program motivates candidates to focus on their academic success.

“It is not a reshaping of their reality, but a reclaiming of their dreams,” Nixon said. “People are not born thinking they are going to be involved in addiction [or] domestic violence, which can lead women into prison.”

Twenty years ago, when Bowden’s husband became unemployed, a lack of income propelled her into the inner-city drug trade. “I could see my life spiraling,” she said. “We eventually lost the apartment, we lost the kids, we lost everything.”

After serving 16 years at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Westchester County, N.Y., Bowen said she felt “distant” from the outside world.

“I tried to find my way through the system [and] where to start life over,” Bowen said. “Without support, it is lonely because you don’t know which way to turn.”

Post-release, housing became an issue for Bowen. In fear of homelessness, she “compromised” her living arrangements and moved in with her abusive ex-husband.

“It wasn’t a happy time,” Bowen recalled. “I didn’t want to go to the shelter.”

For Bowen, reintegrating into society proved to be a challenge worth fighting for.

“It is a learning process,” Bowen said. “You learn to show remorse and then move on with your life.”

According to the CCF website, formerly incarcerated women who lack a college degree relapse at a staggering 66 percent, while their collegiate counterparts recidivate at 5.6 percent.

Nixon explained that CCF empowers women with a “strength-based model” that prepares them for the mainstream world.

“We do not focus on what’s wrong with women, but on the strengths they already have within them,” Nixon said.

After receiving the academic achievement award, Bowen told the AmNews she hopes to open a “transitional house” and will continue to advocate for the collegiate freedom of the criminally involved.

“There will be a lot of obstacles and challenges, [but] be strong, focus on what you want and don’t let anyone take that away,” Bowen said.

Since 2000, CCF has given 286 degrees to hundreds of women across the state.