Luther Miller, a student at Shorter College in North Little Rock, talked to his fellow general psychology classmates on Wednesday about self-defense mechanisms and the theories of Sigmund Freud as part of their final exam preparation.
"We learned how some people will use things to escape. For example, a lot of us in here used alcohol as an escape and, for some, it's how we got here," Miller told the room filled with fellow inmates at the Arkansas Department of Correction's Wrightsville Unit.
Two days later, several state and federal officials, including Gov. Asa Hutchinson and U.S. Sen. John Boozman, gathered inside a recreation room at the Wrightsville facility to watch 25 inmates receive their Associate of Arts degrees from Shorter College.
"You have achieved something that you can take with you through life as a sense of accomplishment and pride," Hutchinson said.
The event carried the same pomp and circumstance as a normal college graduation. Songs were sung, diplomas were given out, families cheered and punch was served at the end -- except guards lined the walls instead of celebratory banners.
The graduating class was part of the the experimental Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, of which Arkansas has been a part for the past two years.
The program is testing whether participation in educational opportunities increases after access to financial aid for incarcerated adults is expanded. It is also examining how waiving the restriction on providing Pell Grants to individuals incarcerated in federal or state prisons influences academic and life outcomes.
The National Institute of Justice recently named postsecondary education an evidence-based practice, but for many years education in prison was frowned upon.
Federal funds used to be available to inmates, but in 1994, with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, students in state and federal prisons were barred from accessing the funds.
"The Clinton Crime Bill incinerated the Pell Grant program and closed the door for self improvement in prison since 1994," Shorter College President Jerome Green said. "We were using a sledgehammer to kill a gnat."
Leonard Haynes III, the senior adviser to the undersecretary of the Department of Education, said the ban was viewed favorably for many years.
"I remember a particular senator asked why we would provide Pell Grants to the prison population when we could do other things with the money," Haynes said.
The Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative was launched by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015. It provides need-based Pell grants to people in state and federal prisons through partnerships with 65 colleges in 27 states.
Pell grants are federal funds that do not have to be repaid and are typically reserved for low-income families. The U.S. Department of Education awards these funds to the colleges; they are used to pay only for the tuition, fees, books, and supplies required by the student's education program.
Two Arkansas community colleges, Shorter College in North Little Rock and Arkansas State University-Newport, were among 69 higher-education institutions across the nation selected to participate in the program. Together, the two schools have been working with seven Arkansas Department of Correction and Arkansas Community Correction facilities.
The statistics are starting to roll in for the experimental program, and correction facilities are noticing the results.
The Vera Institute, which is providing technical assistance to participating colleges and corrections departments, provided numbers to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that showed the college and correction partnerships taught more than 5,000 students in fall of 2017, a 23 percent increase in enrollment from the prior spring semester and a 236 percent increase from fall 2016. Colleges offered more than 1,100 different courses during the fall 2017 semester, an average of 19 courses per site.
The institute stated through fall of 2017 there were 578 graduates in prison, 34 graduates in the community and 954 credentials awarded since the start of the initiative.
Some colleges are designed to teach students in a cohort model where a group of students moves through the program together; others, like Shorter College, are teaching more than 200 students who are at different points along their educational trajectories.
Green said Shorter College was one of three historically black colleges and universities that got approved to be a part of the program.
Shorter College was originally given 250 slots for students and five off-site teaching programs at Arkansas Department of Correction and Arkansas Department of Community Correction facilities.
The Wrightsville unit, the Ouachita Unit in Malvern, the Pine Bluff Complex and two Community Correction offices in West Memphis and Texarkana offer courses through Shorter College.
Shorter College is one of the first colleges to graduate a full class under the Second Chance Pell program and the first historically black college to have a group get degrees.
The number of inmates enrolled in Shorter College's program has increased every year, according to data provided by the college.
Shorter College recently added three new Second Chance Pell campuses in Osceola, Fayetteville, and Little Rock at community-correction facilities.
Dina Tyler, deputy director of the Arkansas Department of Community Correction, said the program unlocks potential.
"A lot of these people didn't know they could learn; but once they do, they realize how smart they really are," Tyler said.
"They were using their smarts for the wrong things without even realizing it," Green said.
Out of the 25 ADC graduates, 16 graduated summa cum laude.
Angela Crutchfield teaches multiple classes as part of the Second Chance program for Shorter College and allowed an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter to see various classes and talk to students.
"You learn from the students just as much as we teach them," Crutchfield said.
Lynda King, a student at the Shorter Colleges campus at the J. Aaron Hawkins Sr. Center in the Wrightsville Unit, said the program works if it's allowed to.
"It teaches you focus on your goals even with the stresses of life coming at you," King said. "We can take that with us and remain successful outside."
Solomon Graves, a spokesman for the prisons agency, said the Second Chance Pell program reflects a current goal.
"If we are really about the business of changing behavior, then education must be a part of it," Graves said to a reporter and a classroom full of inmates. "Either we can let them sit here and dwell on their failures or we can help them focus on the future."
The program is about changing the inmates into students, then into something more than that when they are released, Graves said.
"This could change families, communities and society," Graves said.
This change in philosophy has given inmates such as Laquitha Butler the chance to become students.
"This has taught me I still have more growing to do," Butler said. "I never thought I could complete college, but I can see it in reach."
Tatiana Phillips, who enthusiastically cheered for her mother during the graduation ceremony, said she had been inspired by her mom's actions.
"She is now the first person with a college degree in our family," Phillips said. "I am now going to follow in her footsteps and further my education."
Graves said he gets a smile on his face every time he enters a classroom like Crutchfield's English composition.
"They are still doing all of their regular duties along with this and they are still studying. This is because they want to do better. This program should be in all correctional facilities if we are calling ourselves correction," Graves said as students at the Wrightsville Unit's Hawkins Center cheered.
The experiment is at the end of a three-year federal pilot program that has the option to last five years.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced in February the Restoring Education and Learn Act, a bill that would restore Pell Grant eligibility for people in prison.
Haynes, the Education Department undersecretary, said the Trump administration is aware of the program and there is interest in keeping it running as long as possible.
"Jail reform is a high priority for the administration," Haynes said.
Arkansas has been a leader when it comes to prison education with its participation in the Second Chance program, Tyler said, adding that the smallness of the state probably helps the program because everyone knows at least one person who has been sent to prison.
"They aren't strangers who are locked up," Tyler said. "They are Arkansans."
Boozman said he hopes the program receives permanent status soon.
"This program gives them a second chance," Boozman said.
On the last few days of the fall term, several students surprised Crutchfield with a hand-written thank-you card, which put a big smile on her face.
"We have become a family here," Crutchfield said.
State Desk on 12/03/2018
Print Headline: State partnering colleges with prisons; U.S. experiment studies learning’s effect on inmates