Preventing the School-to-Prison Pipeline With Education and Mentorship

From Prisoner to Mister is a new program sponsored by AIG and the Be A Coffee Bean Foundation. The program aims to help incarcerated men of color get a college degree and become teachers and role models for at-risk youth.

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Left to right: Kendell Romero, cofounder of The Be a Coffee Bean Foundation, Robert Wilson, Mister Coffee Bean scholarship recipient, Zintorrio Cole, Mister Coffee Bean scholarship recipient, Damon West, cofounder of The Be a Coffee Bean Foundation.
Left to right: Kendell Romero, cofounder of The Be a Coffee Bean Foundation, Robert Wilson, Mister Coffee Bean scholarship recipient, Zintorrio Cole, Mister Coffee Bean scholarship recipient, Damon West, cofounder of The Be a Coffee Bean Foundation.

The Be a Coffee Bean Foundation and the Louisiana Department of Corrections selects incarcerated men of color with non-violent, non-aggravated, low-level offenses who have the aptitude to test into college and minimal time left on their sentences. Once chosen, the incarcerated men are transferred to one prison, where a university affiliated with Call Me MISTER® helps them earn bachelor’s degrees and mentors the men in Living Learning Communities. 

After earning elementary education degrees and passing teacher certification exams, the men are paroled and placed as teachers in at-risk elementary schools in their states. They serve as educators and role models for our most at-risk youth, carrying out the mission behind the Mister Coffee Bean program.

Damon West, the co-founder of Mister Coffee Bean, says, “This program aims to reform the current criminal justice system through strategies that focus on preventing our youth from becoming a part of the criminal justice system entirely by addressing the school-to-prison pipeline, reversing it, and creating the prison-to-school pipeline of reformed role models with lived experiences that our youth can benefit and learn from. It’s criminal justice reform on two levels: It’s a second chance for the inmates who have earned it and preintervention for the kids who need it.”

“AIG has a long history of giving back to the communities where we work and live, including through our Legal Pro Bono Program,” says Lucy Fato, executive vice president, general counsel, and global head of communications and government affairs at AIG. “In 2020, our Pro Bono Program added criminal and social justice reform as a key pillar of our mission, and through that work, we met Damon West and learned about the Be A Coffee Bean foundation.” 

“The foundation’s work aligns with AIG’s commitment to take meaningful action that leads to lasting and generational change. The Mister Coffee Bean initiative was particularly interesting to us because of its focus on education and multiyear commitment to reversing the school-to-prison pipeline by supporting inmates as they study to become elementary school teachers, explains Fato. “Damon’s passion for targeting the root cause of incarceration, providing a second chance to deserving individuals, and easing their transition back into society as teachers and role models presented a compelling opportunity for our Pro Bono Program, and we look forward to continuing our partnership with the Be A Coffee Bean foundation over the coming years.”

According to West, these programs don’t cost taxpayers any additional dollars; instead, they are funded through private donations. AIG will cover the costs of bachelor’s degrees from McNeese State University and all other educational needs while the men are incarcerated.

After program participants are released, the Be A Coffee Bean foundation also helps with reentry. For example, through AIG’s corporate donation, the Be a Coffee Bean Foundation gives each graduate a used vehicle, a wardrobe, a place to live, and their first-year student teacher salary.

Most importantly, West says the foundation is committed to the long-term success of the new teachers. The foundation offers a dedicated program of recovery and helps participants meet all requirements of their parole, including mandatory supervision, continuing education, and civic involvement.

Dr. Terry Jackson, a longtime community activist and author from Wilmington, North Carolina, believes the program could go even further and would like to see more corporations get involved. “As African American men reenter society from prison, it is critical that they learn the skills necessary for successful reentry. It is also crucial for them to share their experiences with the youth to prevent them from making similar mistakes and ultimately prevent the youth from being incarcerated,” Dr. Jackson says. “HBCU’s, as well as other institutions, have created teacher certificate programs targeting Black males, as they are needed in classrooms to provide role models for Black youth. These programs should bring together Black males in college who desire to be teachers with the formerly incarcerated who also desire to be teachers. This population can share their experiences of what to do and what not to do, which will prevent you from being incarcerated. Only by investing in the youth proactively can we prevent their future incarceration.”

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