Prisons, community colleges team up for classes

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Capital News Service
LANSING – More community colleges are partnering with the Department of Corrections to educate inmates in hopes of boosting their chances success after release.
Inmates qualified for college-level work are using prison classrooms typically used for substance abuse or GED preparation to further their education.
Last fall, a pilot program was launched that offered Jackson Community College courses at G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson.

Daniel Heyns, Corrections director, said, “The teachers enjoy doing it. The people that are enrolled are motivated students – I’ve heard it said even more motivated than free students.”
He said, “Maybe they value the opportunity a little more.”
Kevin Rose, who teaches computer courses and advises inmates through Jackson Community College, said, “The students were much more engaged and enthusiastic than what I would typically see.”
Rose said the prisoners have a greater appreciation for education than his average students. “It’s a really good experience. The students are much more inspired.”
The college has offered computer, writing, English and freshman seminar courses and is implementing math and communication courses, Rose said. However, inmates are not permitted to use the Internet in computer courses.
Montcalm Community College also offers courses to inmates, which are identical to the courses taught locally. Its vice president for student and academic affairs, Robert Spohr, said, “For years, the college has run much of college level prison education for the Department of Corrections.”
Spohr said last year, Corrections lost federal funding for the programs.
Heyns said inmates or their families must now pay tuition because his department spends no money to offer the courses.
“No one is real wild about investing new money in corrections,” Heyns said, “If you don’t spend money on corrections, you lock yourself into offenders with no skills. They end up coming back again. It’s a cycle.”
And Spohr said, “It is important for everyone that we kept this program going because we were able to document that the recidivism rate for inmates who took college classes was much lower than those who did not.”
Recidivism is the rate at which inmates return to prison within three years of release. Michigan had a 31 percent recidivism rate from 2004 to 2007, according the Pew Center on The States.
Spohr said Montcalm accepts credits from prison courses if the institution is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, which approves degree-granting institutions.
“If the institution is not accredited, we then have to look at the curriculum to see if it covers the content required in any of our classes,” Spohr said.
Dan Rinsema-Sybenga, Muskegon Community College’s director of business and industrial training, said his college is partnering with local agencies on a program called Second Chance Connections, which provides participants with manufacturing skills training.
The college is also in discussions with the Muskegon Correctional Facility to provide community college credit classes at the prison, Rinsema-Sybenga said.
In addition to money for tuition, inmates must also have a high school diploma or GED to take community college courses.
Heyns said he is concerned many inmates will never receive a GED, making them ineligible for college education. He suggests that inmates need a different system of education. “It can’t just all be about the GED.”
Heyns said prisons are trying to provide inmates with skills that are marketable.
“Vocationally, we’ve got a long ways to go. We have to find out from employers, ‘What are the skills that you really need?’ We need to start training to those needs,” Heyns said.
Offenders often have trouble continuing higher education after release due to criminal records. Spohr said Montcalm accepts most applicants. “Unless the inmate’s terms of parole do not allow classes, we accept them.”
And Kelley Conrad, Muskegon’s counseling and advising center chairperson, said, “We are an open door institution and accept students with criminal records, although some programs may not be open to them depending on the specifics of their history. Both nursing and education require criminal history checks.”
Conrad said sex offenders and inmates who abused a child, disabled or elderly person are examples of applicants who would not be accepted.

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