In his own words: A message of hope from an incarcerated Tennessean

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. 

In Con­clu­sion
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.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *