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Murphy visits York prison to discuss law that helps inmates afford college

East Lyme — Inmates at York Correctional Facility told Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on Monday that the college classes they have taken while serving time in prison have changed their lives.

More than one inmate broke down in tears while telling the senator about the educational opportunities they've had in prison, saying the courses they've taken have not only taught them about subjects such as literature and economics, but given them higher self esteem and a sense of purpose.

"I'm not just an inmate, I'm a student," said Tracy Shumaker, an inmate who earned her associate's degree while serving a 25-year sentence at York for killing her husband.

Murphy visited the women's prison to meet with inmates enrolled in college courses through Three Rivers Community College in Norwich and the Center for Prison Education (CPE), a joint program between Wesleyan College and Middlesex Community College in Middletown.

The senator's visit included a roundtable discussion with incarcerated students focused on a bipartisan bill Murphy is co-sponsoring called the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, which would make people in prison eligible for federal Pell Grants to help fund their postsecondary education. The act, legislators hope, would cut the cycle of recidivism by preparing incarcerated people for re-entry into society through education and in turn save taxpayers money on prison costs for repeat offenders.

The recidivism rate, Murphy told inmates and educators, "is way too high." By pursuing an education and preparing for release from prison, he said inmates can set themselves up for a life after prison that doesn't involve coming back.

"If you get on a path to a degree while inside, you lower your chances of showing back up in a place like this," Murphy said.

Middlesex, Wesleyan and Three Rivers are three of the 67 colleges and universities nationwide that are participating in a Second Chance Pell pilot program, announced by the Department of Education in 2016 and designed to provide financial aid to 12,000 incarcerated students. The program reinstates incarcerated people's eligibility for Pell Grants, federal subsidies for college students with financial need. Incarcerated people were banned from receiving the grants as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, according to the Center for American Progress.

York is one experimental site for the program and is working with local colleges to test best practices for offering the grants. Through Three Rivers, inmates can participate in a 15-class program that results in a marketing certificate and credits that can transfer toward an associate's degree. Through the CPE, inmates at York and Cheshire Correctional Institution can earn an associate's degree in liberal arts.

Murphy, joined by professors and administrators from the three schools, told the 10 inmates who participated in a roundtable discussion that he came to the prison to hear their stories and see how the Pell Grants are helping to change people's lives, whether or not they're preparing for a career outside of prison.

"My purpose here is to learn, my goal is to understand what you've been doing here at York," said Murphy. "And be able to bring your success stories and the challenges that still exist here back to my colleagues in Washington."

Shonda Northup, who is 15 years into a 45-year sentence for first degree-murder, said that getting her GED in prison and going on to pursue her associate's degree through Wesleyan has made her "a better person all the way around."

"When I first came in here, I was very angry and very violent," said Northup who became emotional as she told her story. "This program helped me to believe in myself, to see something other than violence and to see that other people are impacted by my decisions, not just me."

Through tears, Northup said that when she came to prison, she never thought she was smart enough to go to college.

"You are," Murphy assured her.

Shumaker, who is in prison for first-degree murder, said that getting an education has helped her "bridge the gap" between the "two worlds" she feels she straddles - life inside prison, and life outside prison where her three children are.

Her children, she said, were young when she was sentenced, and taking classes has given her something to talk about on their calls and visits. Her son loves Shakespeare and after taking a Shakespeare class herself, she has been able to speak to him about her favorite plays and poems.

"This allows us to connect on such a deeper level, rather than that silence on the phone," she said.

Shumaker dropped out of school in the 10th grade, but was able to earn her GED through a pilot program at York in 2005 and then earn her associate's degree in December. Having an education, she said, has made her feel like a different person.

"This is a whole different me, I started looking different in the mirror after my first couple of semesters," she said.

Shumaker has also been studying to become a braille interpreter, and plans to use those certifications when she is released. In the meantime, she's going to keep preparing for that day.

"I want to walk out of here better than how I walked in," she said.

In addition to providing an education for inmates who had never received one, the CPE program also gives people a chance to continue an education that may have been cut short by a prison sentence.

Krista Pikora, who has been at York since 2017, said she was in college studying to be a nurse when she was sentenced to prison. Pikora is serving five-year term after killing a  man in a 2016 crash in Southington in which she was driving drunk.

"I thought I'd lost everything," she said of having to leave school in the middle of her studies. But the programs at York, she said, "have totally broadened my horizons and shown me where the light is."

After taking a variety of different classes, including religion and economics, she now plans to pursue economics after she gets out, rather than go back to nursing school.

Murphy thanked inmates for sharing their visions with him and recognized how taking liberal arts courses can expand students' minds, broaden their education and help them in tapping into skills they didn't know they had.

The senator said that in Washington, policymakers often think of what skills inmates need for jobs, but don't often think about how an education can overall change the way a person's mind works and help them learn critical thinking.

Allie Cislo, program manager for the CPE, said that the liberal arts program offered to incarcerated students allows them to study the same wide variety of topics that they would if they were on campus. The program is offering 10 courses, including philosophy, English and calculus.

The classes, seven at the Cheshire Correctional Institution and three at York, are taught by professors from Wesleyan and Middlesex. CPE staff and professors also lead study halls at the prison a few times a week that include discussion groups and tutoring. Steve Minkler, CEO of Middlesex, said professors are "lining up" to teach courses at the prisons.

One professor, Anthony Hatch from Wesleyan, who is teaching sociology, science and computer technology at the prison in Cheshire, said incarcerated students challenge them.

"These students read everything and come to class ready to engage on the same level as the brightest students at the college," the professor said.

Inmates said that they enjoy going to class because it gives them an identity outside of their sentence of their crime.

Murphy said that developing a sense of purpose was an important part of prison education as well, because it shows incarcerated individuals that "you're not just losing a period of your life."

After a discussion that lasted more than an hour in the prison's college classroom, the senator thanked the incarcerated students for sharing their stories and said he would be passing them along to his colleagues in Washington that night.

The stories, he said, would "put a little more wind beneath my wings in terms of getting it [the REAL Act] to the finish line."

Murphy is a co-sponsor of the REAL Act, introduced by Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., in 2019.

t.hartz@theday.com

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