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Hundreds of Oklahoma inmates using federal funds for college

June 30, 2019
In a May 1, 2019 photo, Brad Goodson, center, asks a question during a landscape design class at Dick Conner Correctional facility in northeast Oklahoma. (Photo by Ben Felder,The Oklahoman/ AP Photos)/The Oklahoman via AP)

HOMINY, Okla. (AP) — Darrell Elliott carried a crate of lavender flowers out of the greenhouse into the direct sunlight, taking advantage of a break from a recent string of spring storms that left northeast Oklahoma soggy and humid.

Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit with dirt smudges on the legs, Elliott gently stroked the petals of one of the flowers, ignoring the razor-wire fence that surrounds the Dick Conner Correctional Center.

“It makes you feel like you’re not in prison,” Elliott, who has five years left on an 11-year sentence for manslaughter, told The Oklahoman. “This also gives me hope.”

Elliott’s work in the prison greenhouse is part of a horticultural class he is taking through Tulsa Community College, which offers several courses and an associate degree program at the prison.

“I would like to work in landscaping when I get out, maybe a small lawn mowing service,” said Elliott, who began taking classes last August. “I can’t change the past, but I can change the future.”

Janet Dowling, the warden at Dick Conner, said she can tell an inmate like Elliott is taking college classes even without looking at the enrollment list.

“You can just tell the guys who are envisioning a new life for themselves, the ones that seem to have a plan and have hope,” Dowling said. “You don’t always see that here.”

She said enrollment in college or an education program improves inmate behavior and offers a productive use of time.

Criminal justice reform advocates point to education as one of the most effective ways of combating recidivism and decreasing incarceration rates, of which Oklahoma leads the nation.

“We know this works,” said Jeff Horvath, the corrections education coordinator at Tulsa Community College.

Inmates who take education classes have a 43% lower likelihood of reincarceration, along with a 13% higher chance of getting a job, according to a report by the RAND Corporation.

Less than 5% students in the Tulsa Community College program return to prison, according to data from the college.

An Oklahoma inmate can also have their sentence reduced for earning college credits. Completing an associate degree can reduce a sentence by about one year.

But in a state where prisons are over capacity and one out of every 10 children has been separated from an incarcerated parent, only three Oklahoma prisons offer college courses.

Just a few colleges work in Oklahoma prisons because of a ban on inmates accessing Pell Grants, which are federal funds that low-income students can use for college tuition.

Pell Grants were once offered to inmates, but a 1994 federal crime bill banned the use, ending a nearly 30-year program that had fueled hundreds of college programs in prisons across the nation.

“The federal ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated people is a relic of the infamously punitive 1994 crime bill and has no place in an America that overwhelmingly supports common-sense criminal justice reform,” said Nick Turner, president and director of the Vera Institute.

Tulsa Community College began offering college courses at Dick Conner in 2007, but the funding was completely dependent on private donations.

Unless inmates could personally pay for tuition — which was unlikely for most — the only option was to take advantage of the limited number of scholarships offered through TCC.

“We had pretty big wait lists because we couldn’t offer that many seats due to our reliance on donations,” Horvath said.

But in 2016, the U.S. Department of Education launched the Second Chance Pell Grant pilot program, which offered the federal funds for some inmates through 65 colleges and universities, including three in Oklahoma — TCC, Connors State College and Langston University.

The pilot program made Pell Grants available to more than 12,000 inmates nationwide and enrollment in TCC’s program grew significantly.

Since 1997, Connors State has offered classes at Jess Dunn Correctional Center and the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center for women.

When Pell Grants were made available, Connors State increased its course offering at each facility from four to 16.

Langston University began offering courses at Dick Conner Correctional Center in 2017 and saw its enrollment grow from seven to 62 within a year because of the Pell Grants pilot program.

This year’s enrollment surpassed 100.

“If that funding is pulled, only self-paid inmates would be served,” said Lisa Weis, associate vice president for academic affairs at Langston University’s Tulsa campus.

Inmates nationwide have received about $13.4 million in Pell Grant funds this year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

While the pilot Pell Grant program is only guaranteed through next year, there has been growing bipartisan support for making it permanent.

“Making Pell Grants available to (inmates) in the right circumstances is a good idea,” U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement last year.

A study released earlier this year bolstered the case for lifting the Pell Grants ban for inmates.

While 64% of state and federal inmates have a high school diploma, just 9% are able to complete a post-secondary program while in prison and just 2% get an associate degree, according to a report by Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality.

If 50% of Pell Grant-eligible inmates had access to the federal funds it would increase the post-release employment rate by 2.1%, according to the report.

The report also estimates that states would save nearly $366 million on prison costs if the ban were lifted, largely due to improved recidivism rates.

While allowing eligible inmates to access Pell Grants would be a significant boost for college prison programs across the country, local states play a role not only in helping education programs succeed, but ensuring inmates can utilize their education upon release.

Many state-issued occupational licenses are not available to a person with a felony conviction, a barrier to employment that some lawmakers believe sets up released inmates for failure.

“We know that the main barrier for people who have been incarcerated is not being able to find a job,” said state Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, the author of a bill that would allow those with felony convictions to obtain an occupational license if the conviction doesn’t directly relate to the occupation they seek to enter.

Despite public support from the state’s Republican governor, the bill stalled in the Senate this year.

With several different types of prescription drugs in his system, Cody Zimmer lost control of his car, crossed the grassy median of a Tulsa highway and struck an oncoming vehicle, killing the driver who left behind a wife and young daughter.

The August morning accident in 2010 resulted in a manslaughter conviction for Zimmer, who is now halfway through a 10-year sentence at Dick Connor prison.

“I kept thinking about how it was possible to turn this experience into something that can help others,” Zimmer said.

Early in his incarceration, Zimmer took a few landscaping courses from Tulsa Community College.

But when Pell Grants became available, Zimmer quickly enrolled in an associate degree program in applied sciences.

With one degree already complete, Zimmer is working on another with hopes to transfer to a counseling degree program after his release. His goal is to help those dealing with substance abuse.

“That’s a really hard thing to come back from, and I feel like there are things we can do to help (keep) others from making the same mistakes,” said Zimmer, reflecting on the drug-induced crash that landed him in prison. “I want to help people from having to live with the same type of guilt for the rest of their life.”

Horvath said Zimmer is an example of how education can help an inmate find purpose.

“Education unlocks doors and gives meaning,” Horvath said. “Being able to take a tough situation and turn it into a positive is just one reason this is so important.”

John Kahre, who spent three decades teaching at TCC’s main campus before working at Dick Conner, said the personal drive of students like Zimmer is one reason he prefers teaching in a prison.

“Here, every class is full with a waiting list. These guys really want to give it their all,” he said.

Kahre said he has never had a problem with student behavior inside the prison.

As the director of the horticulture program, Kahre also said he enjoys introducing inmates to a career field that is attainable after release.

“That industry is fairly felon-friendly and they can get a certification that can really help,” he said.

Horvath said it’s no easy feat to find teachers for a prison.

“We still have to have credentialed professors at the prison, plus it’s an hour from Tulsa, so that presents a challenge,” he said.

The coursework at Dick Conner is just as rigorous as classes on the main campus. But the effort from students in prison can sometimes exceed that of students in Tulsa, “because they might have more on the line,” Horvath said.

Philip Gentry has dreams of starting his own security company and is working through the associate degree program at Dick Conner.

“Being a felon, you are not really job applicable. But I saw this as an opportunity to make my situation better when I get out,” he said.

“It’s been challenging because I’m not the most academically gifted student. There are some things I pick up, but other things like Spanish that has been a challenge. Math is also a challenge.”

But Gentry is on track to meet his goal of a 3.0 grade point average and is set for release in January.

“It really depends on whether you are willing to work at it,” he said.

Brad Goodson is in TCC’s associate degree program and is hopeful he can land a job in landscaping when he is released.

“My motivation is to get out of here and stay out of trouble and make up for lost time,” he said. “This program gives you a skill and a trade, it allows you to make money, and that is the key to not coming back here.”

Goodson said the idea of being released would be daunting if he weren’t currently in school.

“If you are going into a job interview you are always going to be worried that you have a felony,” Goodson said. “But now I go into an interview and say, ‘Yeah, I was in prison, but look at what I did while I was in there.’ I think that might be an advantage for me.”

Elliott, who is taking a horticulture class, said he also has more confidence about his future because he plans to leave prison with a degree.

“I think about (life after prison) all the time. That’s what keeps me going,” Elliott said. “You’ve got to think positive and think about the future, but you can’t think positively about the future if you don’t have plans.”

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Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com

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