Higher education offers solutions to mass incarceration
LAKE CITY — In a small room without windows, tucked behind concrete walls and razor fencing, men in prison blue huddle around the glow of a projector.
They are graphing quadratic functions.
All have regrettable pasts; one is finishing a 25-year sentence for second-degree murder. But on this day, their focus is algebra.
The instructor is out because of a family emergency. But with graduation just a few months away, the students don’t want to fall behind. So one of them picks up the syllabus and takes it upon himself to lead the class.
On the edge of Osceola National Forest, just minutes from the Georgia border, Columbia Correctional Institution is home to Florida’s only state-run educational program for prisoners earning college degrees.
“This is not a Democrat or Republican issue — it’s a workforce issue,” said Lawrence Barrett, president of Florida Gateway College, which leads the program at Columbia C.I. “When you look at recidivism rates, the chances of someone going back to prison go way down with education.”
Educational opportunities for inmates are scarce within the Florida Department of Corrections. A six-month investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and parent company GateHouse Media found several of the state’s largest institutions are granting GEDs and high school diplomas to fewer prisoners than in the past, while a staffing crisis and inmate idleness propel a rise in violence.
In the early 1980s, almost one in 10 prisoners across the country was taking college classes.
But when President Bill Clinton signed an anti-crime bill in 1994, the measure banned incarcerated students from obtaining federal aid. Within three years, there were just eight college prison programs left.
Florida colleges are now trying to fill the gap by tapping volunteers and offering courses to prisoners who qualify. A bright spot, these programs offer inmates hope — something they cherish most.
But the courses only reach a tiny portion of the general population. Efforts to expand have been stymied by a lack of funding and state policy.
“We wish the state would invest more in (inmate) educational programs,” said Andrew Eisen, a history professor at Stetson University, who leads classes at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach. “We are just a bunch of small volunteers right now, and there are (nearly) 100,000 people incarcerated in our state. We can’t reach them all.”
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Johnny Yates lost control of his life to drugs.
He dropped out of high school in the 11th grade when he had his first child and moved from one low-paying job to another.
“I never thought I would do anything,” Yates said.
He is now serving a 10-year sentence at Columbia Correctional for kidnapping, grand theft auto, possession of meth and aggravated assault.
When he first got to prison, his only thought was his next high — and returning to the same old life.
Now, he’s a college graduate with a 4.0 GPA.
Yates earned his GED in prison, and then enrolled in Florida Gateway College through the Second Chance Pell program. He graduated with honors in May.
“At first, I thought it was a joke,” he said. “This is not what I expected in prison. But why not? I have the time.”
With an associate’s degree in science, Yates plans to work in a water treatment plant upon his scheduled release in 2022.
“For me, this is everything,” he said. “It’s a great thing for guys getting off the street … I wish we had more programs like this.”
Florida Gateway runs the only Second Chance Pell program in Florida — one about 65 across the country.
A 2015 Obama administration initiative restored only a fraction of the Pell funding for incarcerated students. Unlike the previous program, individual students cannot qualify — it’s up to the schools to open a classroom behind bars.
Florida Gateway was the only college in Florida to apply.
“The biggest challenge is that the state made it clear, because of current laws, that we would only be able to do this if it was self-sustaining,” said Barrett, president of Florida Gateway.
Current state rules prevent the college from dedicating any other public resources. All of the textbooks, class material, adjunct professors and even a part-time administration are funded through the federal grant — about $375,000 as of March.
“There’s been a lot of pressure to expand it,” Barrett said. “But I can’t do it.”
Just five minutes away from Florida Gateway’s campus — in an area known as the “prison triangle” — Columbia Correctional has the largest average daily prison population in the state, with about 3,200 inmates, the assistant warden said.
A dorm for men in the college program is sequestered from other prisoners. The students live with 48 guys in a group bunk, rather than the typical two to a cell.
Students start at 8 a.m., with three to four classes a day — and four to five days of classwork a week.
There are three classrooms — one used for substance abuse programming — and a computer lab. The students even have an emotional support dog.
Nearly 50 students have graduated from the program so far. All have either obtained an associate of science degree in water quality, or a general associate of arts degree, which allows them to transfer to four-year state schools. The average GPA is nearly 3.8, and all but three graduated with summa cum laude and magna cum laude honors.
“These people will be getting out in less than five years,” Barrett said. “They have to start thinking about a pathway. And we know the days of just releasing people and saying ‘you’re on your own’ don’t work.”
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When Andrew Eisen and Pamela Cappas-Toro moved to Florida, the married couple knew they wanted to start a prison education program inspired by their time at the University of Illinois.
It took more than three years, but they’re now offering credit-bearing classes through what they consider a “satellite campus” at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach. More than 35 Stetson professors have given lectures there on their various areas of expertise — everything from music to the environment to Python computer programming.
“We quickly noticed there was no inmate education,” Cappas-Toro said.
Students incarcerated at Tomoka have spent more than a year researching the history of slaves at nearby Spring Garden Plantation. Off the St. Johns River, the park is a local tourism destination, once host to a skiing elephant show and now home to a popular pancake restaurant. But hidden from the public eye is the site’s dark past that includes a deadly pre-Civil War revolt.
As part of the history project, inmates dug into records that date back to the early 1800s, including photos and records of old Spanish land grants.
“We’re putting together history of this area nobody has been able to tell,” one of the students said.
They’re now working to redo signs on the site to incorporate the full story.
Stetson is the only four-year university in Florida offering inmates for-credit courses. Educators would like to expand the program, but they’re at full capacity with space and resources.
About 70 miles away at the Central Florida Reception Center near Orlando, faculty from the University of Central Florida also teach courses to inmates.
Inside the prison classroom, there is duct tape on the chairs and desks — so inmates cannot take them apart. Pens with any type of springs are prohibited, for fear those too could be turned into weapons. Corrections officers usually stay in the room. Loudspeakers blast institutional announcements.
But beyond the distractions of incarceration, educators say the students are among the most dedicated.
“They really are some of the best students I’ve ever had,” said Keri Watson, who heads UCF’s Florida Prison Education Project. “They’re really eager. They’re really involved. They’re just great students. They have a different kind of mindset going into it.”
The courses at the Central Florida Reception Center are not credit-bearing. Because Stetson is private, the university can waive tuition for inmates. UCF, a state school, cannot.
“Florida has the third-largest prison system in the U.S. and up until a few years ago, we had no higher education,” said Watson, who also taught prison inmates while at Auburn University. “I figure if Alabama can do it, Florida can.”
The Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based human rights organization, found in January that prisoners who took postsecondary education courses while incarcerated were less likely to reoffend and more likely to obtain higher earning jobs.
Experts say increasing access to these programs could offer a solution to the prison crisis.
“Those of us who teach just have a faith and confidence people will live better lives if they have more control over their minds,” said Rebecca Ginsburg, associate professor and director of the Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois. “It’s about becoming better people.”