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Ex-inmate Makes Better Life Through Women's College Prison Program

By Amy Zimmer | June 11, 2012 8:50am
Nora Moran, who spent 10 years at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, graduated with a degree from Marymount Manhattan College while there.
Nora Moran, who spent 10 years at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, graduated with a degree from Marymount Manhattan College while there.
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Bruce Gilbert

MANHATTAN — Nora Moran may have missed out on her college years when she was sent to prison at the age of 17, but she didn't miss out on a college education.

While at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for 10 years, Moran earned her bachelors degree through a program offered by Marymount Manhattan College.

The Upper East Side school runs a program for inmates at the maximum security Westchester facility to earn their Associates or Bachelor’s degrees while serving time — one of the few such programs in the country.

"I needed to get on track," said Moran, now 31 years old. She had been sentenced to prison for participating in two armed robberies.

"At first I was going through a lot of issues. I was struggling with a lot of guilt over what I had done and this chronic need for self-punishment," said Moran, a Rochester-native who also dealt with an eating disorder while incarcerated.

"As I realized I didn't want to be a person creating damage anymore, I realized I needed to grow and repair."

In 1994, a federal crime bill made inmates ineligible to receive Pell Grants that provided funding for prisoners to earn degrees while incarcerated, leading hundreds of such college programs to shutter their doors.

Marymount, however, kept its commitment, taking full responsibility for raising money for the program in 2004 that was originally developed with a consortium.

As Marymount celebrated its 75th anniversary at a gala last week at the Metropolitan Club, it highlighted the program and honored Moran for her accomplishments.

When the newly minted grad left Bedford Hills in 2008, she moved to Harlem and got a job with Puppies Behind Bars, a nonprofit she worked with while in prison, which enlists inmates to train service dogs.

She started out as an administrative assistant and is now the director of the organization's Dog Tags program, which places service dogs with Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and other disabilities. She also goes back to Bedford Hills twice a week to instruct inmates on training for Puppies Behind Bars.

"[College] created a space within prison to explore and give value to ideas that had nothing to do with the prison environment," Moran said. "The prison environment is very limiting and confining. College allows you to make a change in your life."

Moran recalled rigorous classes with professors who "didn't feel sorry for us because we didn't have what other students had." Students, for instance, had no Internet access, though they did have a library that Marymount has built over years.

"I think we're the last generation who know how to use the Dewey Decimal System," Moran joked.

She credited her college program with having provided a foundation to understand the world and help her with the transition when she was back on the outside, living on her own for the first time.

As of 2012, Marymount has conferred 111 associates degrees and 47 bachelors degrees to woman at Bedford Hills. Marymount officials note that none of the grads have ever returned as inmates to Bedford Hills.

"We took the program on because we believed in it," said Judson Shaver, Marymount's president. "We can't do a lot of things like this, where we basically offer an education pro bono, but we had a history here."

Shaver has spoken to women, who have told him that the program changes the whole culture of the correctional facility. Inmates, for instance, can only get in if they're well behaved, and then graduates often work as tutors.

Shaver noted that when Marymount was founded in 1936 by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary from the wealthy suburb of Tarrytown, the mission was to educate young women in the city, who did not have the means to attend most schools. They were excluded from other Catholic institutions such as Notre Dame and Boston College, which only took men at the time.

So, for many women, Marymount was their only option, Shaver said.

The school's mission has since changed — it's now co-ed and no longer a Catholic institution. But for some women, it's still their only option, Shaver said.

"At Bedford Hills," he said, "for women, we provide the only access to higher education."