LANSING — Several years ago, as administrators at Jackson College prepared to offer courses to inmates at a state prison, they weren’t optimistic about success.
The community college in Jackson County had educated inmates for decades, but stopped in the mid-1990s when a federal law change prohibited incarcerated students from receiving Pell Grants. This time around, administrators thought the first class of 18 prisoners paying their own way would be the most academically disadvantaged students they’d ever taught. They planned remedial courses and leveled their expectations.
That inaugural class in 2012 eventually grew to about 400 prisoners today, partly due to additional grants. Those students would not only raise the bar, but shatter it, said Todd Butler, the college’s dean of arts and sciences. Inmates make up about 3 percent of Jackson College’s part-time student population, Butler said, but 46 percent of the part-time dean’s list. Their success rate on their first attempt at completing a developmental math class is near 100 percent, compared to 54 percent of on-campus students.
Butler said instructors attribute the difference in part to a noticeably strong work ethic among incarcerated students.
“It’s that moment when we begin to pull (back) that curtain of our own imagination,” Butler said, “and say, ‘I didn’t realize that this level of potential existed.’”
Jackson College has been a leader among higher-education institutions in Michigan in teaching prisoners while they’re behind bars. Offering college classes in prison is one piece of a broader approach within state corrections departments nationally — and particularly in Michigan — to try to increase inmates’ employment opportunities post-release and lessen the chances they’ll get locked up again.
The college is one of three in Michigan, and more than 60 across the country, to be chosen to participate in a U.S. Department of Education pilot program that will waive restrictions on federal Pell Grants for prisoners in order to find out whether more prisoners will pursue education if they have financial assistance. Jackson College was slotted for 1,305 Pell Grants, more than any other selected college or university in the nation, according to the department. Mott Community College in Flint and Delta College near Bay City also were chosen to participate.
Michigan is second only to Texas in the total number of Pell Grants received. The three schools will teach students at a number of state prisons, including the Detroit Re-entry Center on Ryan Road in the city and the Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven, according to the federal government.
State corrections officials and college administrators hope the program will be a catalyst for reduced recidivism, as they work to send paroled ex-offenders back into their communities with education, skills training — and job opportunities.
The last remains challenging. Many employers still hesitate to hire candidates with felony convictions, though proponents say there are signs that more are becoming receptive to the idea. For instance, a movement to remove the check box on job applications that requires candidates to disclose their criminal records up front — which often prevents a paroled prisoner from landing an interview — is gaining traction.
“Prior to this, I just never dreamed — I never knew — what capable people were waiting behind those bars for an opportunity,” Butler said. “If I didn’t know that, how can I blame any employer out there for thinking the same thing?”
A way out
In 1994, Congress passed a provision in a federal crime bill that prohibited inmates from receiving Pell Grants while in prison. The Obama administration last year announced the new pilot program, called Second Chance Pell, that will waive the restrictions on incarcerated students in an effort to determine the link between access to financial aid and participation in higher education. The selected colleges were named in June.
To qualify, prisoners must be within five years of release. Federal Pell Grants are worth up to $5,815 per student this year, based in part on financial need, the cost to attend classes and a student’s full- or part-time status.
A few years ago, Michigan was one of three states, including New Jersey and North Carolina, chosen to participate in a five-year effort called Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education.
Sponsored by the New York-based nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice and funded by several foundations — including the Battle Creek-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Ford Foundation, based in New York City (Disclosure: Kellogg and Ford also are funders to Bridge Magazine) — the Pathways pilot offered inmates within two years of their release date in Pontiac and Kalamazoo the chance to take college classes and receive other support services. Researchers will follow the inmates for two years once they’re paroled.
Jackson College also participated in the Pathways project; some of those students not yet released are expected to transition into the Pell program, Butler said.
“It’s all about breaking the cycle of incarceration and (encouraging) offender success. And I believe that the key to that is education and employment,” said Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections. “How could we expect people who, by and large, come from environments which are not comparable to the environment that many of us came from ... to get out of prison and be successful without these tools?”
In 2013, Santa Monica, Calif.-based research organization Rand Corp. released a study financed by the U.S. Department of Justice that analyzed existing research on the relationship between higher education and recidivism. Its authors concluded that inmates who received career or college education while incarcerated had up to a 43 percent lower chance of another offense than their counterparts did.
Michigan’s Corrections Department this spring launched a residential vocational training program at a state prison in Ionia that simulates a workday while offering inmates the chance to learn skilled trades in carpentry, plumbing and electrical work, automotive technology, CNC machining and welding. A second location will open at Parnall Correctional Facility near Jackson.
All participants in Vocational Village, as it’s called, live together in the same housing unit designed to create a supportive learning environment. Washington said her department hopes to replicate the idea with the Pell Grant students.
The model makes Michigan a “national leader” in prisoner education and rehabilitation, she testified last week before a state Senate committee.
Jackson College will offer an associate of arts degree, an associate in applied science degree in business administration and an associate degree in general studies, along with a certificate in business, Butler said. Jackson will hire instructors to teach inside a number of state prisons, including the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Washtenaw County.
Mott Community College received 155 grants and will offer two certificate programs in business to inmates at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, while Delta College won 15 slots to teach general management and small-business programs at Saginaw Correctional Facility, administrators at both schools testified.
Taking a chance
The ultimate goal of all of the education and training efforts, proponents say, is for ex-offenders to land jobs that in turn can help them support their families and communities and lower the risk of committing another crime.
Some companies have taken chances on job candidates with felony records; Sakthi Automotive Group USA Inc., a subsidiary of India-based supplier Sakthi Group, has hired dozens of ex-offenders as the company expands in southwest Detroit. CEO Lalit Verma has said he finds paroled prisoners to be among his most dedicated workers.
In Grand Rapids, Cascade Engineering Inc. has opted to wait to ask about an applicant’s criminal record until the company is ready to extend a job offer. And even then, the information is shared only with corporate executives, said Mark Miller, Cascade’s president and CEO, who oversees a $400 million group of 10 companies and 1,700 employees.
Cascade has hired “hundreds” of ex-offenders, some of whom work in leadership and executive positions, Miller testified before the Senate committee last week.
“We’re confronted with a bubble, and that bubble is moving through the system right now. And we need to replace the bubble with competent technical skills and capable individuals,” Miller said, adding that the company sees an untapped labor pool in ex-offenders and supports the Pell Grant pilot.
“For us, this is very simple: Going back to the battle for talent, I would argue that this is mission critical for the state of Michigan.”
Washington said the corrections department is making a deliberate effort to reach out to employers by inviting them to tour Vocational Village and by taking inmates’ resumes to manufacturing expos.
“There’s always been a stigma. That’s always been one of the biggest challenges for anybody coming out of prison,” she said. “We’re not waiting for employers to come to us. We’re out seeking employers.”