Earning A 2-Year Degree While Serving A 6-Year Sentence

Jul 7, 2017
Originally published on July 8, 2017 5:52 pm

In 1978 Waymann Washington had two major things going for him: As a young man, he had his whole life in front of him. He'd also been granted a scholarship to go to college and play football. Two months into school, he dropped out.

Right now he's serving a six-year sentence at the Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio, for drug trafficking.

And at 59, he's found college again.

Because of a pilot program introduced by the Obama administration in 2015, inmates across the country, like Washington, have access to federal Pell grants to take college courses and earn certificates, associates and bachelor's degrees while serving out their sentences.

Sixty-seven colleges were selected to partner with prisons to educate some 12,000 students in federal and state prisons while the pilot lasts.

More than a dozen other inmates at Richland are taking courses alongside Washington through Ashland University in Ohio. Ashland is a Christian liberal arts school about an hour south of Cleveland and has the biggest group of qualifying prisoners in its program. Prisoners must have a release date within five years to qualify.

"This is real. A lot of homework, a lot of studying, a lot of time invested," says Washington. "It really give us a brotherhood because we help each other out with homework. I have guys on the block who tutor me," because a lot of them used to be teachers themselves, he says.

This semester Washington took business ethics, English composition, and philosophy.

"These are really good lectures," he says. "And the good thing about the professors is you just email them and they'll email you right back." Inmates are not permitted to access the Internet, but they can download course materials and submit their work and questions to their teachers — a combination of current and retired Ashland faculty and adjunct professors — through their tablets, using secure kiosks located inside the prison.

For decades, one man, David Webb, has run the Ashland University correctional program.

Years ago, prisoners were allowed access to Pell grants. In 1994, President Clinton signed a crime bill banning prisoners from using the federal funding. "This bill puts government on the side of those who abide by the law, not those who break it," the president said. "On the side of the victims, not their attackers."

Without those resources, the educational infrastructure inside prisons all but crumbled. "We could do college classes, but not offer the degree program," at Ashland University, Webb says.

When the Pell pilot program began. the university went big, offering associates degrees to about 650 prisoners, and building a bachelor's program.

But the future is uncertain again. The program is experimental by nature and set to expire in 2019. President Trump's administration has not indicated whether there will be an extension. In the past, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expressed skepticism about prison education programs.

Research that shows when inmates get a college education, they're almost half as likely to end up back in prison.

Still, Webb says educating prisoners is just as controversial as it was when he first came on the job. He's put two of his own kids through college, and soon one more, so he can understand why people are upset that a person who has committed a felony is going to school for free, "But we also have to look at, 'What is the impact to society?' Because 90 percent of them are going to return to society."

For now, Washington and other prisoners are still working toward their degrees.

"I don't want to say this the wrong way, but it's really a good thing that I got here," says Washington. If he didn't, he says, who knows where he would have wound up.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And we have one more issue in education for you. For the last year, inmates in some prisons have been able to use federal Pell Grants to take college courses and earn degrees while serving time. It's an Obama-era pilot program. Nearly 70 colleges are working with and within prisons to reach about 12,000 students behind bars. Among them is Ashland University in Ohio. WGBH's Lydia Emmanouilidou went to check in.

LYDIA EMMANOUILIDOU, BYLINE: Before prison, Waymann Washington wasn't exactly prioritizing his college education.

WAYMANN WASHINGTON: In 1978, I was in school for about two months, and I dropped out.

EMMANOUILIDOU: And what were you studying there?

WASHINGTON: (Laughter).

EMMANOUILIDOU: You didn't know?

WASHINGTON: (Laughter). I was there on a scholarship - football scholarship. And I really didn't take it serious.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Washington's taking it very seriously now. He's at the Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio, serving a six-year sentence for drug trafficking.

WASHINGTON: And, you know, that song with Michael Jackson, "The Man In The Mirror"? Well, in here, it's a real mirror and it's a real man. And you have to really look at yourself and say, why am I here? Then you could say, well, how can I avoid from ever coming back here and improve my life? That's where Ashland came in.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Ashland University is a Christian liberal arts school about an hour south of Cleveland. It's one of dozens of colleges selected to educate inmates who qualify for federal Pell Grants. Right now, Washington and 15 other inmates here, who are said to be released within the next five years, are working toward their associate's degrees from the school.

WASHINGTON: This is real - a lot of hard work, a lot of studying, a lot of time invested. And it's real. But it really gives us a brotherhood because we help each other out with homework. I have guys on the block who tutor me because a lot of guys, you know, might have been teachers or so forth.

EMMANOUILIDOU: This isn't the first time prisoners have had access to these grants. They were first introduced decades ago but fell out of favor during the tough-on-crime era of the 1990s. The argument went something like this - if families of law-abiding citizens are struggling to afford college, why are prisoners getting it for free?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: There must be no doubt about whose side we're on.

EMMANOUILIDOU: That's President Bill Clinton. In 1994, he signed a crime bill that banned prisoners from using Pell funding.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: This bill puts government on the side of those who abide by the law, not those who break it, on the side of the victims, not their attackers.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Without those resources, the educational infrastructure inside prisons crumbled.

DAVID WEBB: We could do college classes but not offer degree programs.

EMMANOUILIDOU: David Webb is Ashland's director of correctional programs. He's been on the job for decades. He was there when prisoners were still allowed to use federal funding to get degrees. He was there when the practice got banned. And he's there now as the school is once again offering associate's degrees to about 650 prisoners and building a bachelor's program. The pilot doesn't take funds away from students on the outside, but Webb says educating this population is just as controversial as it was when he first came on the job.

WEBB: Their argument is, you know, why is my daughter paying to go to college and this person that committed a felony is going to - for free? I've put two through college. I have another one coming, so I completely understand the cost involved. But we also have to look at what is the impact to society because 90 percent of them are going to return to society.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Research shows that when inmates get a college education, they're half as likely to end up back in prison. That's according to a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation. It found prison education can equal big savings for taxpayers, approximately $4 to $5 for every dollar invested in education. Still, funding for the pilot expires in 2019, and there's no indication that the Trump administration will extend it. For now, prisoners like Washington are getting their degrees.

WASHINGTON: I don't want to say this the wrong way, but it's really a good thing that I got here. And a lot of guys on this compound, they'll tell you - because we just heading the wrong direction. And if we didn't get stopped, we would have kept on down that street, and we might not have been here talking to you. We might not be here at all.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Next summer, at 59 years old, Washington will walk out of prison with an associate's degree in hand. He says he wants to use that degree to land a job and stay out of prison. He does want to go back to school, he says, and get his bachelor's. For NPR News, I'm Lydia Emmanouilidou. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.