By Mike (a graduate of the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative)
The Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition is a statewide initiative on a mission to close achievement and opportunity gaps for historically underserved students in Tennessee. In November 2018, we released a report about the state of postsecondary opportunities for incarcerated Tennesseans. A key partner in our work is the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI), which currently serves 60 incarcerated individuals in two correctional facilities in Tennessee. Their current programs are offered through partnerships with Dyersburg State Community College and Nashville State Community College. Governor Bill Lee’s new $10.5 million criminal justice proposal would include expanding education opportunities to individuals who are incarcerated — while also helping the THEI expand their degree offerings to a bachelor’s degree at the Turney Center Industrial Complex. In this post, we asked THEI students to share their thoughts on the merits — from the personal to the economic — of expanding quality higher education options in correctional facilities.
Governor Lee’s Criminal Justice Reform Agenda
On February 28, Governor Lee recognized the value of higher education in prison. As part of his new administrative budget, Lee has unveiled plans to reform the state’s criminal justice system with an emphasis on rehabilitating offenders and increasing their chances for post-release success. Among other measures, the governor’s proposals include spending $10.5 million to fund GED and college-level classes in state prisons. This funding will also help expand the work of the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI), a nonprofit organization based in Nashville that has been providing accredited college classes to Tennessee prisoners since 2012. In partnership with the Tennessee Department of Correction, Nashville State Community College and, more recently, Dyersburg Community College, THEI has so far helped 45 incarcerated men earn associate degrees, with another five doing so post-release. The new grant will enable more students within TDOC as well as those who have already earned their two-year degrees to pursue four year-bachelor’s degrees.
Why The Investment Matters: Re-Entry and Restoration
[Inmates] with access to education have up to a 43 percent lower chance of re-incarceration compared with those who received no education. Why is that so? Because education…helps former prisoners overcome of the biggest obstacles to their successful reentry: finding employment. This is especially true with academic or technical college degrees. A college education not only improves job-qualification, it also shows potential employers that an ex-offender is more than his or her bad acts committed years ago. A degree represents the discipline, commitment and desire for self-improvement required to earn it.
For prisoners like myself, a college education can mean the difference between successful reentry and re-incarceration. It offers us real opportunity to be productive citizens, to take care of our children, to contribute to and reconcile with the communities we once betrayed.
Many of us have hurt people — victims, our families, our communities — and while we cannot change the much-regretted past, we sincerely want to make amends where possible, to work and pay our taxes, to meet our responsibilities, to be good examples for others. Earning a college degree can go a long ways to make these things happen. It’s not just about finding a job and making money — it’s about making up for a life wrongly lived.
I thank Governor Lee for helping me and my fellow prisoners improve ourselves and emerge from prison better than we entered it.
For our state, this investment will mean less crime, fewer victims and saved revenue that would otherwise be spent on prosecuting and incarcerating re-offenders.
For prisoners, it offers the possibility not only of success but of redemption.
Thank you, Governor Lee
Get Involved How can you support the expansion of higher education in correctional facilities in Tennessee? - Advocate for the reinstatement of the Pell Grant, federal need-based financial aid, for incarcerated individuals in Tennessee. Since 1994, incarcerated individuals have been banned from receiving this federal aid. Write a note or set up a meeting with Senator Lamar Alexander's Tennessee office to discuss reinstating the Pell Grant. - Support the expansion of state, need-based financial aid for these individuals. Contact your local legislators to discuss expanding state financial aid (Tennessee HOPE Scholarship, Tennessee Reconnect, the Tennessee Student Assistance Award) for individuals seeking to enroll in postsecondary programs while incarcerated. - Support existing providers of higher education in correctional facilities, including the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative, to expand the degree offerings, enrollment numbers, and recruitment/retention strategies in correctional facilities. As momentum continues to build, THEI and other program providers at Rhodes College and Lipscomb University have the opportunity to expand the scope of their service. Any form of support by stakeholders and advocates is welcome.