Three Rivers to bring back programs to prisons

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After an at least a four-year hiatus, Three Rivers Community College this fall will bring college courses back to two local correctional institutions as part of a new federal initiative.

Announced in June, the Second Chance Pell program again will allow qualifying prisoners to take advantage of federal Pell Grant money for education — something the U.S. Congress barred in 1994.

The program, which is expected to reach 12,000 inmates across the country, is aimed at prisoners who are likely to be released within the next five years.

It's been allowed because the U.S. Department of Education has authority to bypass the ban in the name of experimentation.

In this case, the department is seeking to find out whether education can reduce recidivism.

Marge Valentin, who is coordinating the program for Three Rivers, said the college jumped at the opportunity to get back into the York Correctional Institution in Niantic and the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville.

In the past, she explained, Three Rivers had access to state and federal money that allowed the college to educate prisoners, but that money dried up.

“Community colleges, one of our biggest missions is providing access to education,” Valentin said. “In (prisons), we’re providing access to a population that likely wouldn’t otherwise have it.”

Being named one of 67 colleges that get to participate in Second Chance Pell — more than 200 applied — is just the first step, though.

In the coming weeks, Three Rivers officials will work with the state Department of Correction and the U.S. Department of Education to determine what courses to teach and which professors to train.

At the same time, they’ll help guide potential students through the same lengthy process nonincarcerated students undergo, which includes choosing an area of study and going through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid process, or FAFSA.

It’s a tight time frame, Valentin said, but the college is aiming to have its Second Chance Pell program up and running by September, when the fall semester begins.

Ultimately, Three Rivers plans to enroll 150 students from York and Corrigan-Radgowski in the program, which will allow students to get certificates in accounting, business administration, marketing or environmental health and safety management.

Valentin said it’s unclear how that number will be divided between the two institutions.

“It’s a pilot program,” Valentin said. “It’s a test to determine whether providing this education helps with keeping folks out of prison and allowing them to get sustainable jobs."

According to an analysis from RAND Corp., whose goal it is to strengthen public policy through research, several high-quality studies on recidivism — all conducted between 1980 and 2011 — show that the risk of committing future crimes was 13 percentage points lower for prisoners who participated in correctional education programs when compared with those who did not.

Additionally, the analysis found that three-year, direct re-incarceration costs are an estimated $870,000 to $970,000 less for those who receive correctional education.

It costs between $1,400 and $1,744 annually to educate an inmate, according to the study.

“We’re hoping we can implement (the program) in a timely fashion, serve 150 people, and down the road have these folks become employable and be able to provide for their families, have sustainable careers and give back to the community,” Valentin said.

Opening possibilities

At Wesleyan University, the Center for Prison Education has been working to educate inmates at York and Cheshire Correctional Institution since 2013 and 2009, respectively.

Although the Center for Prison Education will be partnering with Middlesex Community College to carry out the Second Chance Pell program this fall, its current program — which will continue even after the Pell Grant program begins — is a bit different. Funded privately, it allows all inmates, regardless of the length of their sentences, to apply.

“The overwhelming message is college courses in prison allow people to reimagine themselves and their lives,” said Kristen Inglis, academic development and planning manager for the center.

The courses “make them think maybe there are possibilities for their future they had never considered before,” she said.

To join the program, which has an admission cycle every two years, prisoners must complete two essays and an intensive interview.

Once accepted, the students — many of whom obtained their GED certificates in prison and are taking college-level courses for the first time — are exposed to topics that span the liberal arts, including social sciences, hard sciences, economics, mathematics and literature.

Since 2009, the Cheshire program has admitted about 70 inmates, while the York program has enrolled 25 since getting started in 2013.

Currently, there are 38 enrolled at Cheshire and 17 at York.

Christopher Hammond, a Connecticut College mathematics professor who’s been teaching math at York as part of Wesleyan’s program since fall 2014, said he’s seen great academic growth in the women he’s worked with, many of whom have been taught by him from the get-go.

“Academically, they’ve matured a big deal,” Hammond said, explaining that most of his students were around a fifth- or sixth-grade level of proficiency in math when he got started.

“All of them have managed to get up to college level pre-calculus. Some are still having troubles — lots of people have trouble with math — but they’re focused, diligent, hardworking and grateful,” he said.

This summer, he said, he’s been teaching a math workshop twice a week at York at the request of the inmates.

They wanted to be sure they were prepared for pre-calculus this coming semester — the first course of his that will result in real college credit for them.

Hammond said he remembers quite well the uncertainty he felt before his first class in 2014.

Where would the women be mathematically, he wondered? What would they think of him?

Nearly two years later, though, Hammond said, his experience has been “consistently positive.”

“I was worried they might somehow not take me seriously ... but that has been exactly opposite of the truth,” Hammond said, calling the students “friendly and warm” and detailing a “really lovely” handmade Christmas card they made for him that he said was “over and beyond as far as the craftsmanship that went into it.”

Beyond the gift of knowledge, Hammond said, it seems participating in Wesleyan’s program also has given the inmates something that breaks up their otherwise monotonous time in prison.

“Even though math can be frustrating, it gives them an objective for the week where they otherwise might not have one,” he said.

“They can take credit for the hard work and progress they’ve made," he added. "This is giving them something they’ve done themselves.”

He acknowledged that he can’t predict what his students’ life prospects will be like once and if they’re released, but said he hopes the academic credentials they’ll have under their belts will prove useful.

“If we are serious about the name 'correctional institution,' we have to give (inmates) the opportunity to correct themselves,” Hammond said. “There are lots of ways people can do that. Religious activity is one. But another in self-correction is education."

"If we’re not willing to provide those opportunities, then it doesn’t make sense to even to pretend it’s a correctional institution,” he said.

l.boyle@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version clarifies that the Center for Prison Education will be participating in the Second Chance Pell program in addition to its already-established privately-funded program.

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