Twenty years ago, when Rhode Island native James Monteiro was incarcerated in Baltimore, he read a news article that set him on the path to a changed life. The story was about a young man who had gone from being an inmate at the RI Adult Correctional Institution to being a Brown University graduate on his way to Yale Law School.
“I was pretty amazed at that,” James says. “I realized that more education would equal more money would equal more freedom – and it wasn’t necessarily physical freedom that I was thinking about, it was more about choices. I dropped out of school in eighth grade, so I left myself with little to no choice every time I was released from prison because I had nothing to stand on.”
A speech by President Barack Obama also inspired him. “It was 2008 and I was watching TV in the dayroom, and he said that each American was going to have to commit to at least two more years of education after high school for the jobs in the new economy,” says James. “So I committed to going back to school.” He earned his GED and associate’s degree while he was still in prison in Baltimore, and when he was released he returned to Rhode Island and eventually earned a B.S. in Community Development from Roger Williams University.
James is now the founder and director of the Reentry Campus Program, calling on his hard-won experience to help guide currently and formerly incarcerated individuals along a path toward postsecondary success. The Reentry Campus model accommodates individuals in the RI correctional system as they move through three stages: behind the walls, in transition, and outside the walls.
“When colleges get students from the Reentry Campus, they know they’ve got a really good student. He or she is more than likely going to be able to finish a degree as opposed to start college and drop out. That’s the main goal, to get them to finish what they started.”
“Our mission is to increase postsecondary education graduation rates and to provide a pathway for individuals who are coming home from prison and infuse it within a reentry process,” he says. “It’s one thing to take college courses in prison. It’s entirely another thing to be able to take them on the outside.”
It also takes a while. “It probably takes on average 10 years to finish an associate’s degree behind bars and at least 20 years to finish a bachelor’s degree,” James says. “That’s because there’s few course offerings and not enough space. Colleges exited the prison system when Pell grants were removed. The majority of prisoners are ready. They are trying to get an education, but there is little to no pathway for them to be able to do so.”
Reentry Campus participants who are still incarcerated can earn a year of college credits by passing DANTES CLEP exams. The program pays for the exams and all the study material. Eventually, after being released, participants can qualify to matriculate into Roger Williams University’s School of Continuing Studies or the Community College of Rhode Island. Throughout, students who reach one benchmark reach back and help the next person.
“We created a learning environment within their own setting, such as the housing units that they’re in,” says James. “So they themselves become their best teachers, tutors, and mentors.”
The model is working. Retention rates of Reentry Campus students transitioning into Roger Williams University are above 80 percent. In 2018, seventy students were involved in the program, and two graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Three others earned their CDL certification, and one got certified in culinary. All along the path, Reentry Campus makes sure students are ready to move from one stage to the next.
“When colleges get students from the Reentry Campus, they know they’ve got a really good student,” says James. “He or she is more than likely going to be able to finish a degree as opposed to start college and drop out. That’s the main goal, to get them to finish what they started.”
The SEG Network Effect
Before James enrolled in SEG’s 2018 Impact Accelerator, the Reentry Campus had been operating for about three years. They had partnerships with Echoing Green, Unlocked Futures, Amos House, and Just Leadership USA, along with grant support, and James had developed a good network and learned how to pitch. But he knew he needed to set his organization on firmer footing.
“I see myself as someone who’s passionate about the work and is trying to make something happen. Definitely follow your passion. Don’t be afraid to take that leap. Jump out there.”
“I’m good with pitching,” he says, “but at the end of that pitch they are going to ask you to send something. SEG did a really good job of helping me put together a package that we’re comfortable to send to any funder after we do a pitch – mission, vision, values, theory of change, business canvas model, and so on. So now we have everything we need to submit to people who are interested in the program.”
That package came in handy right away. The night of the 2018 Impact Accelerator graduation, when every entrepreneur in the program made a presentation and a pitch to the audience, Reentry Campus was approached by a funder willing to make an immediate $20K commitment. Since then, the organization has secured funding for the next three years, established a strong board, hired two part-time employees, expanded its student cohort, deepened its relationships with partners, and begun to look at scaling up.
“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution but furthest from the resources and power,” James says. “With the Reentry Campus you have individuals that have created an organization that has proximity to the issue from firsthand experience. We have a good handle on the population because we are the population. Too many times we have individuals who create organizations that not only don’t have firsthand experience but don’t even ask the population what it is they want, and they are creating services for somebody that they think are needed.”
James credits his experience in the SEG Accelerator with building his confidence as a leader. “When you grow up in the environments that I come from, you don’t feel as though you’re capable of being in certain settings – that you don’t even belong in certain settings. Sometimes you think things are out of your reach, you feel as though ‘Oh, that’s something I would never be able to do,’ just because of the way it looks and the way we glamorize it. But actually when you get around people who are doing it, you realize, I can do that, too.”
James encourages other social entrepreneurs to realize the same thing. “I see myself as someone who’s passionate about the work and is trying to make something happen,” he says. “Definitely follow your passion. Don’t be afraid to take that leap. Jump out there.”