James Jeter was at the edge of his seat, waiting to jump into the discussion on the theory of social justice during one of his Wesleyan University courses.
"I have something to say," the student quietly signaled to the professor, putting himself at the end of a long line of students waiting to talk. As he listened to other students, he leafed through the reading, where his notes in the columns were overtaking the pages.
It was finally Jeter's turn.
"I have read this seven times," he told the class. "I understand what it's saying, I agree with much of it... Where is this applicable in real life?"
Five hands immediately shot up.
Lively discussion for this 8 a.m. class has become the norm, says professor Christopher Anderson.
But this class is anything but typical.
A German shepherd can be heard barking down the hall. Students need special permission to check out certain books from the library for homework, and their professor has to go through five security checkpoints to get to class.
Jeter and his classmates are all inmates at Cheshire Correctional Institution, doing time for serious crimes.
"College has always been a goal of mine," said Jeter, who's from New Haven and is halfway through a 30-year murder sentence.
Many students from New Haven fail to graduate high school. Few make it to college, let alone to Wesleyan, a $43,600-a-year university ranked as one of the nation's best.
"Their transcript is identical to what mine looks like. There's no asterisk that they are an inmate," said Lexi Sturdy, a recent graduate of Wesleyan and the director of the Center for Prison Education program.
But these courses are not easy for inmates to get into; it is one of the few available in any of the state's detention facilities.
'The only game in town'
In the early 1990s, nearly every prison in the state offered inmates credit-granting college courses. Today, landing a seat in a college course behind bars is about as likely as earning a perfect SAT score.
Angela Jalbert, the superintendent of education for the Department of Correction, summed up the decline: "Very drastic," she said, took a breath and repeated, "Very drastic."
Max Kenner, executive director of the BARD Prison Initiative, which started degree-granting programs in New York prisons, said this is a national trend.
"They have all closed or are in jeopardy of closing," Kenner said.
Federal financial aid for inmates had supported most of these programs. But in 1994, Congress decided to no longer allow inmates to be eligible for Pell grants.
As a result, Kenner said, the number of detention centers with degree-granting programs has dried up -- from 350 to a handful today.
Martha McLeod, president of Asnuntuck Community College, where the state's prison programs are run through, said the program is on life support. Just 29 inmates take community college courses each year compared with 458 in 1995. And the federal grant for those remaining seats will run out at the end of the school year.
"Many wardens want us to come back, but we have to tell them there's just no funding," she said. Asnuntuck charges DOC $6,000 for each course they offer.
"It's sad, we're the only game in town," Sturdy said.
And it's not for a lack of demand.
"Whatever I can get, I will take it," said Edwin Vega, an inmate convicted of assault and robbery who will be released in three years. "The guys that didn't make it into the class still read the materials and are still doing the work."
Wesleyan had 115 applications for the 18 open seats it had at the start of this school year -- a 15 percent acceptance rate. The school's main campus in Middletown has a 21 percent acceptance rate.
Jalbert said her inmates have the option to have college materials sent to them and to self-teach and earn credit through a proxy exam, but few find the money to pay for a typical college course while behind bars. Twenty-six inmates paid for these courses themselves during the 2009-10 school year.
Inmates can earn vocational education certificates, which DOC reports will prepare them for "entry level jobs when they are discharged."
Vega, who owned his own flooring business before going to the high-security jail, said a certificate won't suffice.
"I need a degree to turn my life around," he said.
Saying goodbye to prison for good
Michael Lawlor, the legislature's longtime Judiciary Committee House chairman and now Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's top criminal justice adviser, said education is the best solution to ensure that offenders do not return to jail when they are released.
"If you want to reduce crime, college is how you do that. It's a no-brainer," he said.
About half of the 16,200 offenders released in 2008 were back in jail within two years, according to this year's recidivism report.
With less than 3 percent of inmates nationwide having a college degree, according to the Department of Justice's most recent survey on the topic, other studies show that those with higher education degrees are much less likely to wind up back in jail. In Massachusetts, those who did not participate in post-secondary programs were twice as likely to end up back in jail within a year, according to a study released by the Urban Institute.
When Jeter leaves he doesn't plan on returning. He already has plans for what he's going to use his degree for when he gets out, which may be when he is nearly 50 years old.
"I want to do social work. I want to help youth who are in troubled situations like I was," he said. "Nothing will benefit me more in getting that job than a degree."
Plans to expand?
Where public money has dried up for higher education in jails, private donors have attempted to fill that void.
Wesleyan University opened at Cheshire three years ago and just secured enough private funding to stay open for another five years. The university hopes to have its first graduation shortly after that. It costs $90,000 a year to be able to afford faculty, books and one full-time administrator/tutor for the 36-student program.
"They are taking full-fledged Wesleyan courses. A lot of times they are harder workers than we are as traditional students," Sturdy said, mentioning an incident where an inmate student set the grading curve for a recent biology test. "I was so proud."
Jeter and Vega's Politics, Morality, Emotions Basis professor, Christopher Anderson, said his students are eager.
"They are hungry for an education," he said after the lively three-hour course.
Education is the most requested need cited by inmates leaving jail, above employment and financial assistance, according to the National Institute of Justice.
Lawlor said he expects the Malloy administration to begin to look into making college a reality for more inmates.
"Of course we want to expand. Why wouldn't we?" he said, noting that the cost of providing someone with an education is far cheaper than paying for their incarceration if they break the law again, and that there's a 50-50 chance they will. "It's worth considering whether the state can invest in this."
Meanwhile, Wesleyan and Quinnipiac University are planning to open new programs at York Correctional Institution for about 30 women.