Prison education program could expand to Colorado

By bringing college courses to more incarcerated people, Colorado officials hope to both enlighten students and cultivate important social benefits.

The federal government plans to nearly double the number of colleges nationwide offering incarcerated people the opportunity to earn a college degree and enable them to requalify for federal Pell Grants to cover tuition and other fees. study cost.

In Colorado, several institutions have expressed interest in joining, and state officials hope to be able to offer four-year degrees to students. So far, only Trinidad State College in southern Colorado has participated in the federal Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites initiative.

Demitrius Herron Graduate, 23, said the program felt more like a first chance at a good education for many. Herron entered Young Offender System at 17 years old. During his six-year sentence, he said he took many classes, eventually taking advantage of the Trinidad State Second Chance Pell program. He earned two associate degrees – one in science and one in arts.

Demitrius Herron poses for a photo during his graduation. He earned two associate degrees while incarcerated.
Photo courtesy of Demitrius Herron

He said the program takes people down, “and someone says to you, ‘Hey, here’s my hand. Let me help you.

Numerous studies have shown the benefits of education in prison, including reduced social costs and recidivism rates. About 90% of those incarcerated will be released from prison, said Melissa Smith, assistant director of corrections programs for the Colorado Department of Corrections.

The program not only benefits students, but also their families and communities, Smith said.

The federal program, which began in 2015 under the Obama administration, offers courses from 131 colleges to incarcerated students in 42 states. the the federal government is considering adding 69 schools, opening the opportunity for more Colorado colleges and universities to participate.

The United States will also expand eligibility for federal financial assistance to incarcerated students beginning in July 2023. Those incarcerated have not been eligible for federal assistance since 1994, when Congress passed a tough-on-crime bill sponsored by the then-Senator. Joe Biden. The number of students receiving an education in prison has dropped significantly.

For decades before, incarcerated people had access to federal aid.

The Second Chance Pell program gives incarcerated students the opportunity to learn the skills needed to thrive once released from the prison system, Smith said. The program also helps instill in families that education can lead to good job opportunities, she said. Potentially, this can lead to stopping a cycle of imprisonment that is taking place among families of color and those with low incomes.

Herron said he was grateful for the education he received at the Pueblo Youthful Offender System, a maximum-security facility housing people between the ages of 14 and 25 convicted as adults. The Second Chance program really offers a chance to improve your life, he said.

“There are a lot of people who have been victims of circumstance,” he said. “They didn’t have the belief or the trust that they all had the same opportunities as everyone else.”

When he entered prison, Herron said he was not confident. He was sad and depressed. But education has helped him grow in ways he never thought possible. He was a speaker at his graduation ceremony, graduated magna cum laude, and after his release enrolled at Colorado State University Pueblo.

Trinidad State College began enrolling students in the program in 2020 and enrolled about 74 incarcerated students as of the fall, according to LiAnn Richardson, president of the university’s division for prison education.

Eleven incarcerated students from the fall 2020 class earned associate degrees.

Even before the Second Chance Pell program, the college taught incarcerated students. It offered an entrepreneurship program.

Trinidad partners with approximately 10 prisons. Instructors use online platforms to teach students across the state. The original plan was for teachers to teach in the prison, but COVID has made those plans difficult, Richardson said. In most cases, students are not allowed to work on computers and must use paper and pencil to do their work.

Richardson said she hopes more schools will step up. She wants students to have the chance to earn a bachelor’s degree in prison.

“The state of Trinidad can’t offer a lot. We’re just not a big institution,” she said. “Having partners on board and able to fill those gaps and offer things that we can’t, it will be great for the students.”

Herron said he believed those incarcerated would seize the opportunities if they presented themselves. He has seen peers who he feels would never want to take a college course come together and thrive.

“If you gave them all the right materials, they would come out of there with a doctorate,” he said.

Jason Gonzales is a journalist covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at [email protected].