Over the last 10 years, only nine inmates have earned a college degree while incarcerated in Connecticut’s prisons.
That’s about to change.
Five hundred inmates at seven state prisons throughout Connecticut are now enrolled in college courses – for free.
In the early 1990s, nearly every prison in the state offered inmates degree-credit college courses. That largely ceased in 1994 after Congress voted to deny inmates the federal financial aid that supported most of these prison programs. A small group of students were still offered enrollment in a program run by Wesleyan University.
But the U.S. Department of Education last year decided to test the impact of reversing the prohibition against giving inmates access to federal Pell Grants so they could attend college. Many convicted felons still will not be eligible after they leave prison.
This pilot program seeks to test whether an education helps decrease an inmate’s likelihood of ending up incarcerated again. In Connecticut, 79 percent of those released were re-arrested within five years of their release, 69 percent were convicted of a new crime, and 50 percent were returned to prison for a new sentence, according to the most recent study of recidivism in the Connecticut Department of Correction. National studies show that those with higher education degrees are much less likely to wind up back in jail.
Education is the need cited most by inmates leaving jail — above employment and financial assistance, according to the National Institute of Justice. But less than 3 percent of inmates nationwide have a college degree, according to the Department of Justice’s most recent survey on the topic.
Elizabeth Behlman – who thinks she will be released next year at age 34 after serving 11 years for her first criminal offense — arson — hopes the associate’s degree she will earn in the coming months will set her up for success on the outside.
The Mirror sat down with Behlman at York Correctional Institution to hear about her path to prison – and listen to her plans for when she is released next year with a college degree in hand.
Where did you grow up?
I kind of made my way around Connecticut. I was a foster kid and grew up throughout the state, but mostly the Waterbury, Naugatuck area.
What do you want to be when you leave here? What is your ideal job?
My hope, at least presently, is that upon upon re-entering society, I’ll be able to get a job. I’m presently trained with power jacks and forklifts. So I’m hoping to work at least temporarily doing some work factory and warehouse-wise – at least until I get back on my feet and while I continue my education.
Did you gain those skills while you were here?
Yeah, I did. I worked for both the food-prep warehouse here and the commissary warehouse here. With both those jobs I unload trucks all day and use manual power jacks.
It used to be a certification program. Unfortunately, I do not have certification to do that right now. It’s something that I have to proceed with when I go home as far as getting certified. But thanks to an experience I have here I should be able to get certified rather easily. I’m pretty good on all four machines that I’ve had the ability to learn on.
You mentioned continuing your education. What do you want to get: a degree, certification…? What’s your goal?
My goal is to take what I’ve been able to accomplish here through the Wesleyan [Center for Prison Education] program as far as earning my associate’s degree and then apply that to hopefully getting a bachelor’s in biochemistry.
I am definitely a behind-the-scenes little bit of a nerd and not necessarily the most social person. So it’s easier for me to work behind the scenes and do things that I love – and science and math have always been my strong suit.
What are you in prison for?
I’m here for felony arson.
When will you be released?
If all goes well, hopefully I will actually be halfway-house eligible about this time next year.
And what’s your next step after that?
Besides work and school, it’s mainly just spending time with my kid. It’s just trying to make the best life I can for myself and for him. He’s 11 years old. He’s in school in the Waterbury area. He is a little smarty pants himself. He is a straight-A student and a student of the month this month at his middle school. So I’m quite proud.
And having an associate’s degree when you leave here, what does that mean for your future?
It’s a game changer for me. I’ve been here 10 years. Being here for as long as I have and re-entering the community with anything is tough enough. It’s tough no matter what you re-enter the community with. But to be able to have an associate’s. To be able to have these credits and to have had this opportunity, it gives me something to build off of.
I think by having that degree – that associate’s already in place – means I’ve already done this much work. It’s gives me that much more motivation to keep doing what I’m doing and to keep going forward because I know I’ve taken the first steps already. So it’s huge.
What people need to know about these college courses is the opportunity that it gives us. The fact is that for many people college was not an opportunity they had outside of here. And even if they did have the opportunitiy it may not have been one that they pursued.
Education is one of those things that is empowering and it gives us the opportunity to live another way. You know, the more opportunities we are given and the more things that we have in our favor when we do go home and re-enter society, the better chance we have of of making it and being successful.
What do you do with a biochemistry degree?
My interest in biochemicals has to a lot to do with diseases and what their causes are. What forms viruses? What forms the plagues that have taken out so many lives over the years? And what can we do to prevent them in the future? But also what can we do to take care of certain diseases that plague us still to this day? You know the big diseases out there that everybody is still trying to figure out.
So let’s talk about the college courses that you’ve taken while at York Correctional Instutition. How many courses have you taken so far?
(Looks at a printout of her transcript and starts counting) I have 2, 4,6,7,9,10,11,12,15. …15 courses completed total. I’m eligible for my associate’s degree after next semester in general studies.
And have you been able to take any of the courses that will set you up for a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry?
Yes, I have biochem in the modern world. I have a history of science class and some smaller ones like biology of women. Different sciences but not necessarily all the prerequisites that I’m going to need. So I may have to redo some courses in order to meet criteria, but it is still a starting point that I didn’t have prior to taking these classes. So it’s something to start with.
Can you talk a little bit about what classes are like for you here? Do you see them as any different than you would expect them to be on the outside?
I think for the most part it’s a typical classroom. I mean we all have input. We all have direct criteria that we have to meet. We have a syllabus for every class and a lot of our professors both from Wesleyan and from Middlesex [Community College] are teaching the classes they’re teaching here simultaneously at their schools. So a lot of times we’re getting the same same exact material as they’re teaching outside of here. And it’s something to be proud of because we know that we’re not having our education dumbed down in order to get us credit.
I like the way our classes work because it does give me a taste of home. It gives me a feeling like I’m doing something that’s not prison. It’s education. It’s school. It’s centered and focused on whatever we’re taking on at the moment.
Growing up did you ever think you would go to college? Is college something that you would have otherwise had access to if you weren’t here?
It was something I always wanted growing up, but I don’t know that I necessarily thought it was a possibility. I think life has a way of kind of trimming our hopes to what we believe we’re capable of, or what we can get or can attain. And I don’t know that I always believed college was attainable for me.
I didn’t know that necessarily I could make it in an academic setting. I had other people tell me I was smart and that I was capable. I didn’t grow up in a situation that made college feasible for me and made that possible for me.
What made you you feel that college wasn’t an option?
I grew up a foster kid for many years. I was adopted at 10, but I also went back into the system at 13. So I spent a lot of time in foster homes and residential group care facilities. And in a lot of those situations they didn’t necessarily have the most opportunities for growth.
A lot of the school settings in residentials, for instance, you’re dealing with large groups of kids grouped together who may be different age groups, different learning statuses, everybody’s on different levels. But when you’re all learning together you don’t necessarily get the attention necessary to pursue anything specific.
Did you ever get to attend a traditional public school outside of your group homes?
I worked a few years at one of my residential homes to finally get to go to a public school because that was something I wanted to do. But it wasn’t necessarily always feasible when I moved from one place to the next.
And when you move a lot, unfortunately there’s also the social factor. You’re constantly the new kid in every school. It’s not the most fun to be the smart kid who just came in and doesn’t know anybody. So you kind of fall back and find your place – wherever that might be.
When it comes to classes in prison, can you talk a little bit about your favorite assignment that you’ve had? What’s been the most memorable experience that you’ve had in your classes?
I am a math and science geek. So I think what probably has stood out the most to me was working through the different levels of math in order to be able to take a pre-calculus because they had to make sure everybody was ready.
You know, when we got to take that class, and when I got to see myself do so strongly at something that I had always believed I was good at, but to be able to see it, it was like it is all coming together. And to be able to help out some of my peers and be somebody that people can count on, it was a different point of view for me to be able to be that person for people.
You mentioned the next step for you is a bachelor’s degree? When will you be able to start working toward that?
That is still unknown. This program is fighting to get us more opportunities and try to open that avenue, but not everything is in place yet to be able to necessarily do that.
I know they’ve fought hard to get us the opportunity to even get an associate’s degree. That was a huge opportunity in itself. I know that I’ll still be allowed to continue to earn credits even after I get that associate’s degree, which hopefully means I can apply those elsewhere.
Will you be the first person in your family to earn a college degree?
My biological family, I don’t really know how many of them have done what. As far as my adopted family – for the years that I did live with them – they have done very well for themselves and I have not necessarily lived up to expectations.
So, I have a sister who is the president and CEO at a hospital in Massachusetts and a brother who has worked for [the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addition Services] previously. It’s a lot to live up to sometimes. You know it’s nice to finally be able to show them and myself that I am capable of kind of walking in the family’s shoes.
So under federal law, you may not be eligible for federal Pell grants to help pay for you to continue your college education. Will that be a barrier for you to continue?
It is a barrier but there are going to be barriers no matter what. If you are willing to do the work, there are always ways to find help or make your way through. Sometimes it’s harder and you have to work that much harder and be more diligent about finding the opportunities. This program thankfully wants to help us when we leave to continue our education, and the program staff tries to help us find a way to continue our education.
Are there other opportunities that you’ve taken advantage of while you’ve been here that you think will better set yourself up when you leave?
I mean there’s not that many, and there’s not as many programs as I would like to see, but there are good ones here. I’ve been blessed enough to be a part of this college program. I’ve been blessed enough to be part of Judy Dworkin’s project. She has a performance project that comes in and uses the arts in order to help give the women here a voice and give us an opportunity to work through our stuff.
I’ve been blessed enough to take part in the mother and children program so that I’ve been able to have extra time with my kid and be able to make sure that our relationship is strong before I go home. Those are all opportunities that are all well worthwhile.
One of the common criticisms that has been launched at prison education programs is that prisoners are getting college for free and it is not well-deserved. Meanwhile, middle-class people can’t necessarily afford college on their own. What would you say to this criticism?
I mean there’s validity in each side of the argument – whichever way you look at it. I can understand where people are coming from when they want to be able to put their kids through school and they can’t afford to do so. And then they see someone else who did not make the right choices in life getting that education for free, I can absolutely understand that argument.
But at the same time, would I say it’s not worth it? Absolutely not. We should want our society to be a better society. We should want the people within it to thrive, and you should want people who are coming out – for many of us we will come out at some point – you should want us to be the best possible citizens we can be when we do leave here. I don’t think there’s any better way than education. I don’t think there’s any better way than people being capable of taking care of themselves, of getting a job, and knowing how to start life outside, to give them a chance.
When you look at recidivism rates, they’re pretty depressing. What do you think your chances are of ending up back here?
I think this prison education program has given me something to work for when I leave. I’ve seen quite a few of my fellow students go home. And so far, of my classmates, I mean it’s a small portion of the facility, but of the classmates I’ve seen go home, I haven’t seen any come back yet. I mean that’s a small sample size, but it has its own language to speak for itself. They’re all doing something for themselves now and hopefully making it better for themselves.
Something worked for them.
Last question, how are your grades?
I actually have an A average across the board.
Data Editor Jake Kara contributed to this article.
Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect that many felons are ineligible for federal Pell Grants, not all convicted felons as initially reported.