A college course at York Correctional Institute. Elizabeth Behlman is at far right.
Eric Galm, a professor at Wesleyan University, teaches an Introduction to Music course to inmates at York Correctional Institute.
Eric Galm, a professor at Wesleyan University, teaches an Introduction to Music course to inmates at York Correctional Institute. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

Taneasha Weaver will be released from prison in two-and-a-half years. She has a high school diploma but worries that will not be enough to find a good job and stay out of trouble.

“You have to have some sort of degree to be successful,” said Weaver, a 28-year old inmate at York Correctional Institute serving a nine-year sentence for driving drunk in an accident that killed two friends. “Sitting here as an inmate, you don’t have too many opportunities.”

With just 18 inmates reported as having earned a college degree over the last 10 years, getting a diploma while behind bars is about as likely as earning a perfect SAT score.

That may soon change.

Mark Ojakian, the new president of the state’s largest public college system, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, has asked the federal government to provide funding so the system’s governing body, the Board of Regents, can open degree-granting programs in nine of the state’s prisons.

“The partnership will support incarcerated individuals toward successful re-entry and help facilitate successful transition back into society,” Ojakian wrote the U.S. Department of Education earlier this month.

If approved, hundreds of Connecticut inmates would begin taking community college courses for free each semester beginning next fall.

Mark Ojakian, president of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities
Mark Ojakian, president of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities

In the early 1990s, nearly every prison in the state offered inmates credit-granting college courses. But courses largely ceased after Congress voted in 1994 to exclude inmates from receiving the federal financial aid that supported most of these programs.

However, the Obama Administration announced in July they would allow a “limited number” of institutions to tap federal financial aid for inmates.

“America is a nation of second chances. Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are — it can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said when announcing what his department calls “The Experiment.”

This pilot program seeks to test whether getting an education helps decrease one’s likelihood of ending up incarcerated again. In Connecticut, half of those who leave prison end up incarcerated again within two years, the state reports.

Not much higher education behind bars

With the loss of federal funding, the state hasn’t been able to afford to pick up the expense.

“Due to the state’s budget challenges, the Connecticut Department of Correction is presently unable to finance college-level courses and training without shifting the costs to inmate[s], which is unfeasible when most of our population lack the means to pay for their education while in prison,” DOC Commissioner Scott Semple wrote the federal government this month in support of the Board of Regents’ request.

Overall, Connecticut is one of 11 states that spends more on prisons than on higher education, according to a recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Today, the only credit-bearing courses that remain are those privately financed and offered by Wesleyan University, a $48,900-a-year university ranked among the nation’s best liberal arts colleges. Trinity College and Quinnipiac University also occasionally offer a single course in a prison.

But these courses are not easy for inmates to get into since far more inmates are vying to enroll than there are seats available.

Inmates at Cheshire Correctional Institution learn about social justice policy
Inmates at Cheshire Correctional Institution learn about social justice policy CtMirror.org file photo

“Whatever is offered, I try to take. There are waiting lists usually, though,” said Panna Krom, who is serving 18 years for drowning her daughter after giving birth at age 17. “I have known people who go back to the community and say it’s extremely hard to transition. I hope having some college will help.”

Weaver also has tried to take every course that has been offered — which includes molecular biology, introduction to ethics and international politics — but at this pace she will still be far from earning a college degree when she is released in April 2018.

“I don’t know what the likelihood is that I will be able to finish when I get out. I am going to try,” she said.

College behind bars is anything but typical.

Students need special permission to check out certain books from the library for homework. Professors at York have to go through six security checkpoints to get to class. Classes have to be canceled sometimes when a prison is put on lock-down.

Professors also have to improvise at times.

Eric Galm — a professor at Wesleyan who teaches an Introduction to World Music at the prison for women in Niantic — is unable to bring instruments into the facility.

“With no drums, we are going to just stomp on the ground and table,” said Galm, who also teaches at Trinity. Because music originated years ago without instruments he doesn’t think it will hurt the lesson. “That’s just part of the ebb and flow of teaching here.”

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 these correspondence courses while behind bars. Three inmates paid for these courses themselves during the 2013-14 school year.

Inmates can earn vocational education certificates, which DOC reports will prepare them for “entry level jobs when they are discharged.”

Education is highest priority for inmates

Education is the need cited most by inmates leaving jail — above employment and financial assistance, according to the National Institute of Justice.

But few people with criminal records apply for the financial aid available to them so they can attend college, said spokespersons for the Regents and the University of Connecticut, which is separate from the regents’ system.

“There are extremely few students we must consider who have been convicted,” said Michael Kozlowski, a spokesman for the regents.

While less than 3 percent of inmates nationwide have a college degree, according to the Department of Justice’s most recent survey on the topic, studies show that those with higher education degrees are much less likely to wind up back in jail.

“There is tremendous value to consider in the Board of Regents application…,” Semple, the state correction commissioner, wrote. “We will be helping to ensure that ex-offenders remain engaged and continue their education post-release toward their quest to obtain employment, housing and pro-social affiliations that keep them on a positive track and less likely to recidivate and be re-incarcerated.”

This proposal couldn’t come at a better time for the colleges. Enrollment has steadily dropped at the state’s community colleges as the traditional college-age population declines.

A college course at York Correctional Institute.
A college course at York Correctional Institute.

“We have the capacity to offer a lot of courses. We have the instructors. It wouldn’t be a burden to do this. It’s not a scary unknown. We’ve done it before,” said Eileen Peltier, the dean of workforce development and continuing education at Asnuntuck Community College, which is proposing enrolling 300 inmates each semester..

The second phase of the Regents’ application to the federal government lays out a plan to help get students who are released from prison before completing their degree enrolled at their local college.

“When they leave prison any of the colleges will welcome them and make it easy to start classes,” said Peltier. “This is a great opportunity for people. Education is key to turning their lives around.”

More than 200 colleges and universities nationwide have applied for the federal funds, and schools will find out this spring whether they have been selected for the experiment, a spokesman for the federal education department said.

A group on Democratic legislators — including Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro — have proposed making federal financial aid available to all inmates.

“We benefit as a society when prisoners have the necessary tools to create productive lives for themselves,” DeLauro said earlier this year.

But such a change will face considerable pushback from some Republicans. On the same day the Obama Administration announced it will offer a some inmates federal Pell Grants, three legislators proposed the “Kids before Cons Act” that would restrict the department from offering such a pilot program.

CSCU proposal to offer college behind bars
Community college Correctional Facility Programs to be offered Estimated # of participants
Asnuntuck Enfield, MacDougall, Osborn, Robinson, Willard-Cybulski Certificates and associate degree programs in business administration, human services management and marketing 300 per semester (two courses per prison, 10 courses per semester, 30 students per class)
Manchester MacDougall Drug and Alcohol Recovery Counselor 15-20 per class, on or two classes per year
Capital MacDougall, Robinson, Enfield, Osborn, Cheshire, Manson, York Accounting, Architectural Engineering, Coomunication Media, Computer and Information Systems, Mobile Application Developer, Construction Management, Entreprenuership, Music Industry, Social Services, Community change studies, Gerantology, Library Technical Assitant, Mental Health 20 per class, number of offerings to be determined
Three Rivers York, Radgowski Business Administration, Exercise Science 20 per class, number of offerings to be determined
Naugatuck Valley Cheshire, Manson Business Accounting, Adminstrative Support,Business management, Visual Arts 20 per cass, number of offerings to be determined

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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