As a champion of institutional, structural, and personal transformation, the Institute opens doors and eliminates barriers to success for people who have been involved in the criminal legal system. We create access to higher education and pathways to satisfying careers. We advocate for the right to housing, employment, healthcare, and other human rights too often denied people with criminal convictions.
The Institute for Justice and Opportunity was founded in 2005 as the Prisoner Reentry Institute (PRI) by then John Jay College President Jeremy Travis and Founding Director Debbie Mukamal. Under Mukamal’s leadership, PRI worked on a range of issues, including reentry from jail, entrepreneurialism and reentry, employing formerly incarcerated people, and siting residential facilities in the community.
In 2008, PRI convened a groundbreaking roundtable on the intersection of higher education, incarceration, and reentry. The resulting papers helped to articulate the foundation for the growing national attention to restoring college in US prisons, and for designing the Prison-to-College Pipeline (P2CP), John Jay’s own college-in-prison program.
PRI also designed and administered the NYC Justice Corps, a neighborhood-based program for 18 to 24-year-olds that provided youth with the opportunity to learn skills while charting a new course for themselves and engaging in projects that benefited the community.
Ann Jacobs was appointed to lead the organization in 2011, when Debbie Mukamal left PRI in 2010 to lead the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. PRI continued to expand the NYC Justice Corps and launched the Prison-to-College Pipeline program. We also established a number of prestigious fellowship opportunities to enable John Jay students to combine their studies with long-term, stipended internships in non-profit organizations working in youth justice and policy advocacy.
In 2015, College Initiative (CI) became a part of PRI, after having been an independent entity for 13 years. The addition of CI created a continuum of educational and support services at PRI that starts in prison and continues in the community. CI assists students in enrolling in colleges across CUNY and the metropolitan area, and offers mentoring and other wraparound services to boost retention and college success. This continuum has expanded over the years to include for-credit classes at the city jail, and a pathway for students in the community who are seeking their High School Equivalency degree.
The Career Pathways unit was created in 2018 to focus on developing training and employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, with a focus on careers in human services. We also provide training and technical assistance for the human services organizations that employ formerly incarcerated people.
Over the years, our research and policy work has focused on a broad range of topics, including pretrial justice, solitary confinement, women in the jail system, and most recently, on eliminating housing, occupational, and educational barriers for people with conviction histories.
All of our work starts by soliciting and centering the voices of the stakeholders involved and applying a systems-thinking lens to understanding the challenge we seek to address. Employing principles of Participatory Action Research (PAR), we engage stakeholders in shaping and interpreting the research that we conduct. Directly impacted people are integral to the planning and pursuit of our advocacy agenda, just as they are central to the planning and delivery of our direct services.
We work at the intersection between systems, and regularly convene stakeholders to collectively shape strategies for moving forward. This approach characterizes our work to promote a more comprehensive and integrated system of providing college in New York State prisons. It is also reflected in our partnership with the CUNY Provost’s office to expand the University’s efforts to enroll and support the college success of students who have been involved in the criminal legal system.
We take collaborative action toward these goals, working with the CUNY Provost’s office and other partners throughout CUNY, city and state corrections, and the community of criminal justice and education agencies.
In 2020, after 15 years as the Prisoner Reentry Institute, we changed our name to the Institute for Justice and Opportunity. Our new name more accurately reflects the scope of our work, our aspirations, and our commitment to person-first language.