Delta students graduate from behind bars

Photo Courtesy of Delta College Press Release

Delta students graduate from behind bars

By RJ Murphy, reporter.

UNIVERSITY CENTER – In July of 2015, the Department of Education under the Obama administration announced they would be implementing the Second Chance Pell program. This experimental program secured funding for incarcerated Americans to pursue postsecondary education. Delta College is working with the Saginaw Correctional Facility in Freeland to educate qualified inmates.

This October, the first group of students graduated, receiving associate’s degrees in small business management/entrepreneurship.

Delta College president Jean Goodnow said in a press release that the ceremony was a highlight of her career.

“This partnership is important to our community because as a society, we must equip incarcerated people with the skills to build a life for themselves upon release from prison,” facility warden Tom Winn said in the press release.

Bruce Kemmer became the first teacher in the Saginaw Correctional Facility at the beginning of 2017. In order to teach at the prison, professors need to be lien cleared. Kemmer begins each night passing through a metal detector and being padded down.

“You have to be very meticulous about materials you’re taking in or leaving in,” says Kemmer. “I liken it to airport security. Once you’re past the gate, you’re in there.”

The prison guards run a tight shift. Some materials must be submitted for processing up to a week in advance. Ordinary objects like pencils or locks can be turned into weapons, so they must be accounted for.

“The prison has never denied us anything we need to do our job, but it’s a different world,” says Kemmer.

The curriculum is almost identical to that of a course a student on main campus would experience. However, inmates are not allowed internet access within the prison, so all of their assignments and tests are completed by hand instead of digitally.

Kemmer reports that the majority of students treat him with respect. He approaches them in the same way as students on campus, but there are some differences.

“On campus, we’re encouraged to get to know our students,” says Kemmer. “Out there, we’re not allowed familiarity; that’s MDOC [Michigan Department of Corrections] rules.”

In order to qualify for the program, the inmates must be within five years of their release date, have gone a year without a class one ticket and have a high school diploma or GED. Academically, Delta College holds all of their students to the same standard.

According to MDOC, the recidivism rate in Michigan is about 29%. A 2013 RAND Corporation (Research and Development) study funded by the Department of Justice found that incarcerated individuals that participated in correctional educational programs were less likely to return to prison after three years.

The study also estimates “for every dollar invested in correctional education programs, four to five dollars are saved on three-year re-incarceration costs.”

“One of the biggest challenges that [inmates] face when they are released from prison is they are going back to the same environment that they left,” says Kemmer. “Some of those same pressures are there.”

Employment is a huge factor. Finding a decent job can be hard for someone who has been convicted of a felony. For some, returning to crime appears to be the only option.

John B. King Jr., U.S. Secretary of Education says: “The evidence is clear. Promoting the education and job training for incarcerated individuals makes communities safer by reducing recidivism and saves taxpayer dollars by lowering the direct and collateral costs of incarceration.”

Of the first ten graduates, seven graduated Phi Theta Kappa in honors. The program is on track to graduate ten more students in April with another seven qualifying for Phi Theta Kappa. This experimental program will continue for at least another year.

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