The Washington Post/Getty Images

When Donte Small was locked up for six and a half years on an assault charge a few months after he graduated high school, he thought his education had come to an end.

But by the time he was released from his Maryland prison, he had 28 credits at Goucher College, a selective liberal arts college in Baltimore, thanks to an innovative program that lets inmates take classes like any other student. Now he’s continuing at Goucher, majoring in sociology with a concentration in social justice and a minor in computer science. He wants to go into social work, to “help people who were in similar situations as mine,” he told Fusion.

“I didn’t think that I could do college, that I was capable of it,” Small, 23, said. “I thought I was more a hard labor worker, and that was going to be how my future was going to pave out. College gave me some insight that I could use my brain if I worked hard enough, that I could be whatever I want to be.”

For most inmates, the kind of education Small received is out of the question, but the Department of Education is taking the first steps toward changing that. In a speech today at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup, Small’s old prison, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch will launch a pilot program to help more inmates pay for college education.

The biggest impediment to expanding access to college education in prisons is a lack of funding. Since 1994, inmates have been ineligible for Pell Grants, the main federal source for helping low-income students to go to college. The current prison programs from Goucher and other colleges like Cornell, Bard, and NYU, tend to be funded .

Advertisement

Under the new pilot program, inmates who are eligible for release will be able to apply for "Second Chance Pell Grants." Colleges and universities can now apply to be eligible to receive the new grants for the 2016-17 school year.

“America is a nation of second chances," Duncan said in a statement. "Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are.”

The efforts follow a growing body of research showing that education while in prison, including college classes, reduces recidivism rates for inmates. A major 2013 study from the RAND corporation found inmates who participated in any education while behind bars were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years. Every dollar funding correctional education programs saved between four and five dollars on re-incarceration costs, the study estimated.

Advertisement

The Goucher program, free to inmates through private donations, has been in operation since 2012, when the first class had 15 students. Now, it serves about 70 students in two prisons, Jessup and the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. While inmates must have a GED or high school diploma to apply, it doesn’t matter what they’re in prison for or how long their sentence is.

“We offer the same courses in the prison that are offered on the main campus,” Liat Melnick, the administrator for Goucher’s prison program, told Fusion. “It’s a full liberal arts education.”

Steven DeCaroli, a philosophy professor at Goucher who has taught philosophy and political science courses in the prisons, says he sees the program as an attempt to right the wrongs of our broader education system. "For so many of these men and women, the neighborhoods where they grew up were so underserved by public education that they didn't even have a chance to get into the game," DeCaroli told Fusion.

Advertisement

Professors come to a special campus in the prison, and inmates face the same lectures, readings, assignments, and grading as any other student. According to DeCaroli, the discussions of his inmate students can be more enlightening and inquisitive than their peers in a regular classroom.

"The key is to make sure that this is not education-lite. That doesn't help," he said. "What helps is treating people with a respect that requires you to teach to their abilities that they don't even know they have yet."

For Small, taking college courses like DeCaroli's political philosophy seminar helped him learn how to "turn something negative into a positive." It "gave me more insight into myself," he said.

Advertisement

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.