From Prisoner to Educational Advocate

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Photo by Matthew Ansley

Jessica Soble’s journey from small-town life in upstate New York to becoming an education coordinator at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City has been one of tragedy, resilience, and transformation.

At 18 years old, as a strong student fresh out of high school, Jessica Soble enrolled at State University of New York at Oswego with plans to earn a bachelor’s degree. When an unplanned pregnancy and the responsibilities of motherhood intervened, her academic pursuits were put on hold. She had completed just two years of college.

Navigating life’s challenges became increasingly difficult, exacerbated by an injury she sustained during her third pregnancy that resulted in an opioid-centered pain management regimen. Then, soon after her third child was born in 2009, Soble found herself providing for her young family alone.

“As a single mom of three, I had to be pretty functional to care for the kids,” she says, and in her effort to manage her pain so she could manage the demands of parenthood, she became addicted to prescription opioids. Within five years, she was using heroin.

Tragically, Soble’s struggle with addiction culminated in the death of someone she and another man were attempting to rob. She was arrested soon after, and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Her resulting conviction led to a 10-year sentence at the maximum-security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the largest women’s prison in New York.

She was pregnant with her fourth child when she walked through the heavy metal doors of Bedford Hills. Though the facility allows mothers to remain with their babies through the Nursery Program, Soble wanted her baby in the healthiest, safest possible place. Custody of her infant daughter was turned over to her parents soon after the baby was born.

Turning Back to Books
Within the confines of prison walls, she found an unexpected lifeline — education.

“I always wanted to finish college,” she says, “but I just didn’t have the time or the money or the means to finish.”

Determined to change her path, she took advantage of Second Chance Pell Grants and seized the opportunity to enroll in courses offered by Marymount Manhattan College (MMC). She completed an associate of arts in social sciences within a year, in part due to the transfer credits she had earned previously. The experience inspired her to continue, and she enrolled in the bachelor of arts in sociology program.

Despite the limitations imposed by the prison environment, Soble’s dedication shone through, earning her accolades as a dean’s list student semester after semester and the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant for a faculty member, Jane Maher, who taught writing at Bedford Hills.

“I worked in the [College] Learning Center as a clerk, and I would pull [Maher] aside and ask for her help with my papers. Eventually she asked me to be her teaching assistant, because she had seen my writing skills,” Soble says.

She remained determined to complete her degree, even in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak and its unprecedented effects on educational systems across the country.

“The process got very complicated. We didn’t have much correspondence with our professors, since we had to use snail mail and wait for responses to our work or our questions,” she says. “We would be on lockdown for weeks at a time, so we had plenty of time to do our homework, but it went slowly.”

The program director would drive to the facility and gather the incarcerated students’ correspondences, take them back to her office on campus to scan the pages, one at a time, and sort them into emails to the appropriate faculty members. After reviewing the communications, faculty would email their responses to her and she would print the pages and return them to Bedford Hills, where they would be processed through the standard mail system, which could sometimes delay delivery by several days.

The Start of Something Better
Soble persevered and completed her BA in sociology in May 2022. It was a milestone achievement that had once been out of reach, and one that gave her a sense of what she was capable of.

Her experience in the program had also taught her about the inadequacies in the system. When she clerked in the prison’s college office she advocated — to anyone who visited from MMC’s main campus — for changes that would increase efficiency, accessibility, and participation. “You need someone as a bridge,” Soble would tell them.

“School and education had always been important to me,” she says, “but I guess it became a passion of mine while I was [incarcerated]. I really liked the work I was doing as a clerk but I also saw where there needed to be improvements and adjustments made.”

Eight years after her conviction, Soble was released from Bedford Hills on May 22, 2023, and wasted no time taking meaningful action. Two days later, she presented herself at the office of the MMC president and let him know how serious she was about her advocacy. “I told him they should hire me to help improve the system.”

A few days after that, she received a phone call with an offer of a newly created role so she could do just that, as coordinator of the prison education program at MMC.

In her current capacity, Soble spearheads efforts to enhance educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals, ensuring that they receive the necessary support to transition into higher education and beyond. “I really love my job. I’m just helping it all run a little smoother. Marymount didn’t give the Bedford Hills students enough support, but now I am the follow-up support!” she says.

Her dedication extends beyond the prison walls as she embraces her role as a mother, having regained custody of two of her children a few weeks after her release. She is securing a brighter future for them; as part of her employment benefits, Soble’s children can attend MMC at no cost. Her oldest daughter will start college in the fall and plans to major in psychology.

Looking ahead, Soble’s aspirations remain undeterred. With plans to pursue a master’s degree in higher education, she envisions climbing the ranks at MMC to further impact the landscape of prison education.

“Education keeps you focused on bettering yourself in a positive way,” she says. “Maybe one day I’ll be the director of the program.”