School of Second Chances

Inmates who get an education are less likely to reoffend when they’re released. So why are prison education programs getting cut?
58 ESTES Spread


Washington State Reformatory looks like a college, and in one improbable sense, it is. A massive stone temple of a building, it has sat for a hundred years atop a campus of rolling lawn and manicured flower beds, overlooking groves of giant evergreens and pink rhododendrons. Today, as families walk up the wide granite staircase to a University Beyond Bars graduation, the scene is like that at any college—except that the arched windows here are bricked in and the walls topped with coils of razor wire. And these college students are staying a lot longer than four years. They’ve been convicted of crimes classified as “serious violent,” and their sentences run from a decade or so to well beyond their natural lifetimes. Hardly college material, it would seem.

But soon they’ll be awarded certificates showing the college credit they’ve earned from Ohio University in courses ranging from general psychology to precalculus to Renaissance poetry. Two men will receive Associates Degrees. They’ve earned the right to be proud. They have helped design and create an independent prison college program, and they have earned, over the last five years, a total of more than 2,000 hours in college credit.

Taxpayers were repaid many times over by those who earned college degrees in prison, since only 12 to 33 percent of them reoffended compared to a national recidivism rate of nearly 70 percent.

A Mean-Spirited Time

Thirty years ago, a successful prison college program would not have been particularly remarkable. Close to 400 college programs operated in prisons across the nation, funded primarily by federal Pell Grants. Thousands of men and women left prison with college degrees and a chance at a better life. And in those days, even though crime rates were higher than they are today, people generally believed that men and women who served a prison sentence had paid their “debt to society” and earned a second chance. Besides, taxpayers were repaid many times over by those who earned college degrees in prison, since only 12 to 33 percent of them reoffended compared to a national recidivism rate of nearly 70 percent.

But today’s unlucky prisoners live in a different America. This one is the end product of three decades of tough-on-crime legislation. Pell Grants for prisoners, the backbone of prison college programs, are long gone—banned by Congress in 1994, even though grants to prisoners made up only 0.5 percent of Pell Grants. State legislators generally felt that the feds hadn’t gone far enough in removing the “perks” of imprisonment. In Washington state, legislators outlawed the use of tax dollars on higher education for prisoners.

How then do prison college programs exist at all these days? Precariously, and in just a few prisons, like WSR.

Flying Under the Radar

In October 2010, representatives of about 30 prison college programs met for the first time at the University of Illinois to discover who else was quietly doing this work and just how they managed to pull it off.

Most were started by individual faculty members at colleges and universities who visited prisons and became convinced that this is where higher education is most needed. Somehow, they had persuaded their institution to sponsor, to different extents and in different ways, a prison college program.

As the stories unfolded over the three days of the conference, two themes emerged. First, surprise that prisoners are not only a pleasure to teach compared to college students on the outside, but also talented and often brilliant.

The second theme was more ominous: To do the work of educating prisoners in the United States, it is necessary to “fly under the radar.” Just one misstep or piece of bad luck—one legislator bellyaching publicly about college education wasted on criminals, one guards’ union rep griping that criminals are running the prison system, just one individual who commits a horrific crime—can put a highly successful prison program out of business overnight.

University Beyond Bars photo by John Estes

Inmate students show their newly earned A.A. degrees and college credit certificates at the 2009 University Beyond Bars graduation. Kimonti Carter, interviewed for this article, is front row, third from left.

Photo by John Estes.

University Beyond Bars

It’s 6:30 p.m. in the visit room at WSR and everything is running a half-hour late. Most of the prisoners have finally made it through the pat-down line and into the visit room. Some parents have been held up for two hours in the waiting room. There’s no music, because the prison wouldn’t permit the invited choir to attend.

But the atmosphere is festive as faculty members come forward to present their students’ certificates, and students step to the microphone to speak. What they say is a testament to what can be accomplished under the most adverse circumstances.

Jeremiah Bourgeois tells about the effect of his college studies. “I was incarcerated when I was 14 years old. It is likely that I will never be released from prison. I spent almost a decade behind bars doing little more than fighting prisoners and assaulting guards as I struggled to come to grips with the prison subculture. My transformation has affected not only prisoners who knew me when I was a menace, but also those who are just starting to serve their sentences. They see me as a role model and see what can be accomplished in spite of one’s circumstances.”

Noel Caldellis, a young yoga practitioner and UBB teaching assistant, says, “When I see guys carrying textbooks out to the yard, meeting for study halls, or when I hear that the latest bet between two students is being placed on the outcome of their math tests rather than on a football game, I know that UBB is cultivating something unique.”

"[Other prisoners] see me as a role model and see what can be accomplished in spite of one’s circumstances.”

Caldellis and the others are right. UBB is unique, even among prison college programs, for two reasons. First, UBB is not part of an outside educational institution. That means that UBB can be easily replicated on a tiny scale at any willing prison, even when there’s no local college or university to help. Classes are structured around curricula designed by Ohio University for their Course Credit by Examination program. Students work with instructors in the classroom to learn the material over the course of a semester, using OU’s curriculum and recommended texts. When the students have mastered the material, they take the OU test. OU then awards college credit based on the grade the student achieves on the test, and UBB volunteers raise the $300 tuition needed to pay for each class.

The second unique aspect of UBB is that prisoners themselves have played a crucial role from the beginning in designing and running the program. A Prisoners Advisory Committee of about 12 men meets weekly to decide on fair policies, to choose the classes UBB will offer, to figure out how to recruit men from the big yard who are suspicious of education or afraid of failing, and to negotiate the hurdles, frustrations, and paperwork required to do the smallest thing inside a prison, from bringing in textbooks to changing a class meeting time.

Their achievement is remarkable in a country that imprisons more of its population than ever before, for longer periods of time than ever before. As UBB student and teaching assistant Kimonti Carter puts it, “UBB is just as life-changing as fresh water to villages in underdeveloped countries, and just as important.”

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Program at Risk

But the prison educator’s nightmare has come true in Washington. In January 2011, a corrections officer, Jayme Biendl, was brutally murdered by an inmate at WSR—the first death of a guard in Washington since the ’70s. All of the prisoners at the institution were punished with weeks of cell confinement. The state prison system has convulsed with a flurry of zero-tolerance rule enforcement, blaming programs for coddling prisoners and punitively transfering prisoners who have done nothing wrong.

“You’re going to have to use every bit of political clout you have,” one DOC employee told us, “because this will set programs back 25 years.” That discouraging process has already begun. But Stacey Reeh, UBB’s program director, prefers the advice of one of its students, a man who’s been in prison long enough to have experienced everything the system can dish out, from riots to years in solitary confinement: “You can’t let it knock the juice out of you. You just roll with it.”

That’s what UBB intends to do.


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