Jamil Watson was serving time in prison when he first met Tara Timberman, founder and coordinator of the Reentry Support Project at Community College of Philadelphia.
Timberman assured Watson that if he enrolled in the Reentry Support Project’s College REACH program, he could map out a pathway to earning his associate’s degree at the College and get the support he needed along the way.
In the spring of 2015, while still incarcerated, Watson started his first college classes. He was released in July. In December, as proud family, friends and members of the College community looked on, Watson and eight other formerly incarcerated students were recognized by Mayor-Elect Jim Kenney, College President Donald Guy Generals and Court of Common Pleas Judge Holly Ford as they received certificates of completion for their first academic semester as part of the REACH program.
Watson shared his journey at a moving ceremony during which Mayor-Elect Jim Kenney offered the students a vote of confidence. “I want to thank the College for giving us the second chance to be better fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends and leaders,” Watson said. “We no longer have to define ourselves by our prison ID numbers, now we’re defined by our college IDs. And we soon will be students with degrees.”
Kenney stood nearby, taking in the moment. “I want you to understand that we are committed to doing what we say,” he pledged. “We want to be there to help at every step of the way in your effort to come back into society, be productive members of society, pay taxes, raise families.” he said.
Dr. Generals praised the students for reaching the first of many milestones: “It’s important to recognize the transformation these young men have made in their lives,” he told their family, friends and supporters.
The College has been on the cutting edge in providing programs, educational access and targeted, multipronged support for returning citizens. In December, it unveiled Future Forward, an initiative designed in collaboration with District Attorney R. Seth Williams which offers eligible Philadelphians who have been charged with a non-violent felony crime an alternative to incarceration.
The REACH program, an academic initiative under the umbrella of the Reentry Support Project, made headlines in December because it provides a visible road map to a population that needs direction. Philadelphia is home to more than 300,000 citizens with criminal records. Since 2010, the Reentry Support Project has served 500 students with criminal records.
Incarceration is expensive and taxpayers pay for it. The cost to house an inmate in the Philadelphia Prison System or the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is approximately $42,000 per year. The United States spends $80 billion a year to keep people incarcerated. For that amount America could provide such social enhancements as: pay for universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old; double the salary of every high school teacher; and offer free tuition at every public college and university.
During the summer of 2015, President Obama mentioned the positive contribution the Reentry Support Project has made to increasing student access to higher education in Philadelphia during his speech to the NAACP. He cited Jeff Copeland, a College alumnus who received support from the Reentry project,
as a shining example of someone with a criminal record who has gone on to achieve great academic success. Copeland recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Temple University.
The Reentry Support Project, which has been recognized by the League for Innovation, is housed under the Fox Rothschild Center for Law and Society, headed by Kathleen Smith, J.D., professor of Paralegal Studies and director of the Fox Rothschild Center for Law and Society at the College. Law is treated both as an area of study, as well as an influencer in community life. Students are encouraged to explore its effect on them. “When students see how law relates to the technology they use, the food they eat and just about every topic imaginable, that’s a real light bulb moment for them,” Smith said.