Michelle Thomas

She is using her experience and research at the Monroe County Jail in hopes of increasing the standard of living for ex-inmates.

Working in the field of substance abuse and mental health issues requires a person to be more than just helpful. They must be completely selfless, and Michelle Thomas is just that. Thomas was born in Rochester, New York and spent most of her life growing up in the inner city.

Thomas has always described herself as a determined student. After high school, she attended Monroe Community College, despite some academic struggles with the curriculum, graduated after two years and was accepted into SUNY Brockport. Her initial intent was to join the Social Work program, but after seeing a close family member struggle with addiction, she knew her heart lied in specifically helping those with substance abuse problems.

“I love to help people. My father struggles with his addiction, and I was interested in understanding substance abuse and how I can help my father,” Thomas said. “I was able to understand the addiction cycles and how they affect me.”

While receiving her education has been her priority, Thomas still finds a way to contribute to her community in a plethora of ways. This led her to receive the award for Extraordinary Contributions in Community Service through the Educational Opportunity Program. While this is only one of her many awards and scholarships she has received at the College, including the Ronald E. McNair award, it speaks the most of her character. Thomas’ goal has always been to help others, but it wasn’t until her dual diagnosis class when she watched the movie The Released that she was finally able to see the future paved before her.

“‘The Released’ explained how there is a need of stability for ex-inmates with mental disabilities and why there is a revaluing cycle of ex-inmates going back into the prison system,” Thomas said. “Since, I have discovered my personal calling, to help those with mental disabilities.”

“The Released” wasn’t the only work of art to influence Thomas, Shirley Better’s book “Institutional Racism” has played a large role in her recent research project, revolving around the connection between inmate’s education and race within the Rochester area. While the ideas and concepts stem from Better’s book, Thomas has gathered her information and conducted her research through the Monroe County Jail. She hopes to provide more evidence for Better’s claim that the quality of schooling and the education level of inmates directly affect their recidivism rate. Better believes that less schooling, as well as, lower quality of education of the inmate population, will have a direct correlation to higher recidivism rates. If Thomas can provide more evidence to this claim being true, then it can be used to better our society and set ex-inmates up for success in the future after prison.

“This is important because the educational programs can help lower the recidivism rates locally and explain the different benefits of vocational education,” Thomas said. “Hopefully, this project will find issues that ex-inmates are struggling to address, while coming to a conclusion on how beneficial education can be on inmates.”

After Thomas wraps up her research this summer, she will still have a long path ahead of her. In the fall, she starts towards her master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling and looks forward to a potential doctoral education afterward. Eventually, she would like to open her own agency in hopes to help ex-inmates gain stability after incarceration.

“Someday I would like to own my own business, in which I can combine all of my acquired knowledge, skills and experiences,” Thomas said. “I hope to develop a community program inclusive of the necessary resources to help clients that suffer from mental health and substance abuse disorders.”

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