Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan lauded 41-year-old Brian Jones’ extraordinary record at the ribbon cutting of his east side 102030 clothing store last month. Jones, a paralegal who graduated summa cum laude from Oakland Community College, is well on his way toward achieving a bachelor’s degree at Eastern Michigan University.
The typically reserved business owner fought back tears as he shared his personal journey before a packed house assembled at the “Investing in Futures” forum at the Detroit Country Club. The event, which was made possible thanks to Bank of America, was hosted by the Vera Institute of Justice, Detroit Regional Chamber, and Corrections to Colleges California.
“At one time, I never dreamed of being welcome, let alone comfortable and in the front of a room at a gathering like this with senior-level leaders, educators and community stakeholders,” said Jones.
One of the experiences in his personal biography is prison. Jones served just over 16 and a half years before hearing about Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education, a five-year, Vera Institute of Justice-led initiative that provided Michigan, New Jersey, and North Carolina with incentive funding and technical assistance to expand postsecondary education for currently and formerly incarcerated.
“I regarded it as an opportunity,” he said, “perhaps my best, if not only, one.”
Jones had to surpass a number of hurdles before he gained acceptance into the program and faced many challenges throughout his college career – like battery-powered calculators, computers and other devices common to most students, but routinely banned in many correctional facilities due to safety protocols. Jones and his classmates learned to do without, and frequently completed complex assignments by using long-form, with nothing more than golf pencils and lined paper.
Like many students, Jones had a day job in prison, which is one of the requirements of the program. After completing a full day of work he’d focus on his courses.
“The noise level and interruptions in a prison environment are unbelievable,” he said. “But we could not let distractions deter us.”
The incarcerated and returning citizens face many deterrents, says Rebecca Silbert, director of Corrections to College CA at the Opportunity Institute. Some obstacles include resentment and hostility from fellow inmates and prison staff.
“One group of about 10 students were forced to stand out in a cold downpour for more than 30 minutes before their correctional officer ‘found’ a ‘lost’ key to their classroom,” she told the audience at Investing in Futures.
“How many students on any of our college campuses would wait 30 minutes for anything today?” she asked, “let alone, wait to get into a class, of all things.”
Despite challenges, there are more interested prison participants for college-level courses than there are open positions, she says.
In California enrollment in correctional college courses has leaped from 100 to 4,500 since a change to the state law in 2014 that made teaching in prison easier for colleges. Much of this has to do with the high level of cooperation from community colleges that actively seek to increase their correctional facility numbers, said Silbert.
“There’s an incentive for community colleges to ramp-up enrollment in programs like this,” says Silbert. “That’s because California’s community colleges are funded by public dollars that support the tuition of its residents, including the incarcerated.”
The state’s nearly $7 billion in general funding for community colleges is based on enrollment numbers. In Michigan funding guidelines for such programs are more restricted, said Beverly Walker-Griffea, president of Flint-based Mott Community College, which actively participates in the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program.
Mott Community College is finding additional ways to work with students with justice system involvement beyond Second Chance Pell. Walker-Griffea said the Michigan District Courts administer the program, which currently is limited to first-time offenders who plead guilty to non-violent offenses. Participants who successfully complete the program will avoid being charged with crimes or have the charges dismissed; unsuccessful participants are returned for prosecution.
Mott currently offers two degrees of study – Business Management and Social Work Technician – under the Second Chance program, which are approved by the U.S. Department of Education and the Michigan Dept. of Corrections.
Walker-Griffea says the Second Chance program gives many a first chance to transform their lives.
“When people ask, I tell them about one of our program participants who defined success by his status as a first-time taxpayer,” Walker-Griffea said. “How many people do you know that look forward to being a taxpayer? These program participants do.”
Last year Mott’s National Society for Leadership & Success chapter sent eight incarcerated students to the organization’s national conference. The organization is fundraising to support memberships for 20 inmates during the coming fall semester.
Some question why people in prisons should receive access to government-funded education programs.
“It saves taxpayers money,” said Margaret diZerega, project director at the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center of Sentencing and Corrections. “If just half of the eligible prison population participated in a postsecondary program, employment rates among returning citizens would increase by 10 percent, on average.” That translates to about $45.3 million during the first year of release.
“But in addition to taxable income, there are savings,” said diZerega. “Based upon our research, we estimate that expanding postsecondary education in prison is likely to reduce recidivism rates, resulting in a decrease in incarceration costs across states of $365.8 million per year.
“Programs like this work for everyone and should be expanded.”