Three Rivers' Second Chance program benefits prisoners, professors

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In the two years since it restarted its prison education program, Three Rivers Community College has served 82 students, including two who continued their education upon release.

Three Rivers was among the 67 colleges chosen in 2016 to participate in the Second Chance Pell pilot program, which allows qualifying prisoners to use Pell grants to pay for college courses.

Congress barred prisoners from accessing the need-based grants in 1994 but the U.S. Department of Education bypassed the ban to see whether education reduces recidivism, or the likelihood to commit another crime.

In a June update on the program, the Vera Institute of Justice — it assists participating colleges as needed — said those who participate in education programs while in prison are 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who don’t participate in such programs.

Marge Valentin, associate dean of workforce and community education for Three Rivers, said the college is offering two certificates: marketing, which requires nine courses, and environmental health and safety management, which requires eight.

Only marketing is available at York Correctional Institution, the women’s prison in East Lyme. Those incarcerated at Radgowski Correctional Institution in Montville have access to both.

Valentin said the state Department of Correction chose the certificates and trained involved faculty and staff on the rules of working in a prison.

So far, the college has used $281,218 in Pell grants to educate 27 York and 55 Radgowski students over four semesters.

Six students are eligible for their certificates and will be honored in prison, Valentin said. Two others, now out of prison, got their certificates during the college’s May commencement.

Valentin said the program, slated to last through at least 2019, “truly is a second chance” because it helps prisoners get parole, land jobs and stay out of legal trouble.

“We haven’t heard that it’s going to end, which is good news,” she said. “We’re cautiously optimistic that it will continue.”

Maurice Mitchell

Thirty-five-year-old Maurice Mitchell spent his five-and-a-half years in prison thinking about all he had lost. 

He lost freedom. He lost friends, family members. And he lost time with his daughter, Amasia, who turns 13 this month.

“Loss taught me how to value what I have,” Mitchell said by phone this week. “Losses are what gave me the vision to better myself.”

Mitchell jumped at the chance to study environmental health and safety management while incarcerated for drug possession. He knew it could help him get a good job — “You don’t want to come home empty-handed,” he said — and he wanted to become a role model for his daughter and other younger relatives.

Paroled in April 2017, Mitchell began commuting from the New Haven area to Three Rivers so he could complete the certificate program. He brought his daughter to some the classes.

“I want her to see my walk, my path,” he said. “I want to make it so she can always see the formula, the recipe for knowing how to overcome things and not be shaken up just because things are rough.”

Mitchell drives a forklift on an as-needed basis and has been treating his daughter to new experiences, such as whitewater rafting. He plans to pursue an associate's degree in the fall and hopes to soon put his studies to use — preferably in a place where he can positively influence others.

“Sometimes people do messed-up things but it doesn’t mean they’re all bad,” he said. “I feel like it’s a powerful message when (a formerly incarcerated person) can transform themselves into a productive, constructive member of society.”

Thomas Ibbison

Bloomfield resident Thomas Ibbison was taking classes at Three Rivers until he got locked up in April 2013 for robbing a jewelry store. 

Ibbison, 31, lost his father to complications from asbestos exposure and is passionate about workplace safety, he said. He was thrilled when he learned about Second Chance Pell.

“Why would you not want to educate people that probably have a passion for it but were never able to learn because of distractions at home, or because it just wasn’t in their cards to go to school?” Ibbison said.

Before he could begin learning, Ibbison spent a semester making monthly payments on his student loan, which was in default.

Paroled three months ago, Ibbison received his certificate in environmental health and safety management in May and now is pursuing an associate's degree in environmental engineering.

He interviewed this week for a manufacturing plant’s safety coordinator job, he said, and he thinks it went well.

“It has made me feel human again,” Ibbison said of the Second Chance Pell program. “It has made me feel that I can partake in society and be successful regardless of the limitations my choices may have led to.”

One report, sponsored by the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, found that each dollar invested in prison education yields $4 to $5 in reduced incarceration costs.

“Is there a career path for felons?” Ibbison asked. “No. Should there be? Well, it costs more money to house us than to educate us.”

Diba Khan-Bureau

About 15 years ago, professor Diba Khan-Bureau helped design Three Rivers’ environmental health and safety management certificate program. 

“When I heard the inmates chose my program, I was, first of all, flattered,” she said. “Secondly, who better to teach them than the person who developed the program?”

Khan-Bureau eagerly agreed to begin going weekly to Radgowski Correctional. She had no idea how different the gig would be.

Khan-Bureau can’t bring a projector or laptop into the prison, so she prints up her PowerPoint presentations for each student before arriving.

Without access to computers, the students turn in handwritten homework, which is harder to grade than a typed assignment.

Khan-Bureau can’t take students into the field for hands-on experience or bring in speakers, as she would for her courses at Three Rivers.

If a student wants a pen, he has to give Khan-Bureau his ID badge and return the pen at the end of class — it could be used as a weapon, after all. And if he wants to study, he’ll need to find somewhere quiet — a challenge in prison.

“There will be some failures,” Khan-Bureau said. “I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses. I know some won’t ever go back to school and some will end up back in prison.”

She's still teaching Mitchell and Ibbison, though, and believes they'll succeed.

“Many say, ‘Why can’t I get this free education?’” she said. “But everybody makes mistakes. I don’t know what these guys did to get into prison, but they’re trying hard to educate themselves so they can make contributions to society and the environment. What more can you ask for?”

Edwin Muenzner

When he learned Three Rivers was relaunching its prison program, professor Edwin Muenzner asked other instructors if they could handle the accounting course.

Muenzner, who coordinates the college’s accounting program, already was teaching more than full time last fall. But no one else was free, so he reluctantly agreed to go to York Correctional — on the condition he could bring in a laptop and projector.

“That first day, I said, ‘Here’s the deal: I’m gonna give it my all, and I expect each of you to do the same,’” Muenzner said.

“By the time the class was done, I’m not sure who got more out of it — them or me,” he said. “It has been an absolutely amazing experience.”

Muenzner, who also works as a certified public accountant in Franklin, already is amazed he gets paid to teach in a field he loves. What’s different about the prisons, he said, is how hungry and grateful the students are for the information he shares.

“I don’t know what anybody has done (to land in prison), but the students that come to my class want to work,” he said. “They want to learn. They want to better themselves.

“I will go there as long as they want me to.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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