Civil Liberties

Jailhouse Education


It is quite common for prisoners, who after all have time on their hands, to take advantage of their new home's library and get a "jailhouse education." This is how such famous cons as Malcolm X and the Birdman of Alcatraz schooled themselves. But in Providence, Rhode Island, two doctors who work with incarcerated women are putting a new spin on this old institution: They plan to give private school scholarships to their patients' children.

Rhode Islanders Sponsoring Education is the name of the new "go to jail, pass to private school" plan, which will send 20 fifth-graders to at least three private schools next year. The money is entirely privately raised. Individual donors will typically sponsor a child, which costs between $1,500 and $3,000 each year. In addition, they are encouraged to provide mentoring and guidance for their child.

Founders Drs. Kevin Vigilante and Timothy Flanigan modeled RISE on Student Sponsor Partnership, a New York program founded by Flanigan's father, a Wall Street investment banker. SSP provides kids from New York's worst high schools, where a mere one in five students graduate, with the opportunity to attend a parochial school. In a decade, SSP has served more than 1,000 kids. More than eight in 10 graduated from high school; three out of four attended college.

RISE's wrinkle is that they intend to intervene early, in the fifth grade, and serve students whose mothers are either drug addicts or in jail. RISE will pay the students' tuition through the eighth grade. At high school, students will be able to compete for scholarships or attend some of the better public schools. RISE hopes to support 20 children next year, 25 in 1998, 30 in 1999, and 35 in 2000, for a total of 110 in the program. Having already raised $180,000 and assembled a team of 20 sponsors and five volunteers, RISE is well on its way to meeting its goals.