There has been a lot of media attention recently for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announced proposal to provide college classes to inmates while in prison. As a university president and a former law professor, I agree with the governor that education is a good investment in our neighbors and fellow human beings, and an effective method of addressing the problem of ex-offenders re-entering society.
A recent RAND Corporation report states that inmates who participate in correctional education programs are 43% less likely to return to prison, and 13% are more likely to obtain employment after release. Beyond the studies, I have witnessed the life-changing effects of such a program.
Since 2007, Lipscomb University has led its LIFE (Lipscomb Initiative For Education) Program at the Tennessee Prison for Women, the state’s primary penal institution for women offenders. In December, Lipscomb awarded full associates degrees to the first nine inmates to complete the LIFE Program... one class at a time. Sixty-three credit hours and seven years later, with an impressive collected GPA of 3.7, these women received their diplomas in much the same manner as the 414 students who graduated on the Lipscomb campus the next day, only their ceremony was held in the prison gymnasium, not on Lipscomb’s campus.
The special graduation ceremony may have been one of the most humbling and proudest moments of my time at Lipscomb. It was inspiring to hear the graduates comment on what the program has meant to them and how the diploma they earned was far more than an academic achievement. It represented second chances.
The LIFE Program offers selected inmates, who have college potential, standard Lipscomb classes with Lipscomb faculty on-site in the institution. The uniqueness is that approximately half of the students are inmates and the other half are regular Lipscomb students who travel each week to the prison for the three-hour credit class.
You can imagine the interesting moments with this program, particularly trying to explain it to parents. "Yes, your son’s class in sociology is held at the state prison and, yes, he will go through security each week to be admitted to class.” Just last week, a Lipscomb student enthusiastically told an audience of potential students about her experience with a class at the prison. I am not sure which students benefit more, but I am sure that the lives of all who participate are forever changed!
I have heard countless stories of improved self-esteem and preparation for a very different life that results from the program. Several students who were released before completing the program have gone on to take additional courses on the Lipscomb campus.
A correctional college education is far reaching. It impacts the penal institution at-large in terms of improved behavior because of the desire on behalf of scores of inmates who want to participate. It benefits the inmates, their families, their fellow inmates, prison administrators and their society. I simply think that it is a tangible example of the message that with education, things can be better.