Providing a second chance

By Robert Gates

Second Chance Pell grants are changing lives in Virginia

Many people in this country look at their circumstances and can’t imagine that there’s a different and better life for them.

Approximately 10.6 million people go to jail each year in the United States with nearly 1.4 million of them incarcerated in state and federal prisons. The vast majority of state correctional facilities offer educational opportunities – from vocational and technical training to GED completion and postsecondary education. Moreover, research supports the benefits of such programs. For example, those who participate in correctional education have a 43% lower likelihood of returning to prison and the odds of post-release employment are also higher (from 13% to 28% depending on the type of education program).

This is affirmed by Haynesville Correctional Center Principal Jeffrey Scales: “Whether we are able to help them with Adult Basic Education (ABE), General Education Development (GED) Career and Technical Education (CTE) certification, or an Associate Degree each of these programs will allow our students a better opportunity upon release for success in society, therefore reducing the recidivism rate, where the state of Virginia is a national leader.”

Despite the opportunities that are available and the likely payoff, only 2 in 5 incarcerated adults chose to further their education while in prison and half of them completed their GED or high school diploma. Even fewer – 30% – completed a post-high school program.

Why is that? The reasons vary from lack of interest to preparedness and affordability. For example, 30% of the people in U.S. prisons haven’t completed high school and 25% come from a household where neither parent completed high school. Legislation and court cases in the 1960s provided funding to states for educational programs in prisons and allowed prisoners to use federal aid to pay for education. However, in 1994 President Bill Clinton signed a bill that removed access to Pell grants for postsecondary education and some states made similar changes to their financial aid. Nevertheless, access to GED and vocational training programs continued.

Things changed in 2016 when the Obama Administration established the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative which included 63 colleges nationwide including Rappahannock Community College (RCC). The number of sites was expanded to 130 by the Trump Administration in 2020.

Forging new paths

RCC began collaborating with Haynesville Correctional Center (HCC) in 2008 using funding from various nonprofit organizations, including the Laughing Gull Foundation. The Second Chance Pell program has allowed RCC to expand their programs leading to two-year degrees or certificates. All of the HCC students are enrolled in the Associate of Arts and Science degree program. Upon completion of that degree, the students are candidates for transfer to four-year colleges and universities upon degree completion.

Many graduates of the award-winning RCC program relate a similar story. They tell of being raised by a single parent in an urban setting characterized by drugs, violence and poverty. Most dropped out of high school because they didn’t see its relevance to their lives. They saw drugs and crime as the preferred way of life and had no role models to show them that there were other possibilities.

Some of them learned that there were other paths the first time they were incarcerated; others took longer. Eventually, they came to understand that the path they were on only led back to prison. But there was a better way. Best of all, it was available to them. As one of them said, “There’s just no winning it.” He decided to “get everything out of the experience while I’m here” and to “take advantage of the opportunities while I have them.”

They came to the RCC program by different paths but it usually started with completing their high school education through the GED program. Some first used their time in prison to earn an occupational certification and state license. One RCC graduate started by earning certification as a dog trainer and another as a barber. Some are motivated – some by friends inside or outside of prison and others by the availability of the program and its promise of a better future – to begin the journey towards a two-year degree. Their end roles are also varied. The dog trainer wanted to learn more about business so that he was better equipped to start and run his own business. Others plan to pursue a four-year degree after their release.

There are unique challenges to pursuing a degree in prison and those who complete the process have really earned it. Classes are taught without computers and internet access; studying and homework are done in noisy dormitories and study hall time in the library is only once a week. “You are surrounded by negativity and past vices that may have taken you to prison in the first place,” a recent graduate observed.

They acknowledge the support and encouragement they receive from the RCC faculty; something that had been previously missing in their lives. They haven’t just been upbeat in their attitudes but, as one graduate says, RCC instructors want to see their students win and, from where he stands, that is no small deal.

So, there is a better life available to them and RCC is providing the path … and it runs both ways. Graduates of the RCC program universally talk about being changed – and better – people who can now see a future for themselves that they couldn’t have imagined growing up.

As RCC President Shannon Kennedy has said, “This program helps us live our vision of transforming lives.”

Imagine the possibilities!

This editorial was originally posted here.

Robert Gates

is chair of the Rappahannock Community College (RCC) Educational Foundation Board.