Learning Inside

In my last VTDigger column, I wrote about the visionary work the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) is doing to decarcerate people in prison who no longer need be there, to provide educational, interventional support and counselling services for those in their custody to ensure a safe and secure reentry, and to reduce recidivism. This column expands further on their education work. The quotes below are all from incarcerated students in the CCV/DOC educational program.

Courtesy VT Dept of Corrections

Today, I’ll shed light on a joint venture between the Community College of Vermont (CCV) and DOC that brings the opportunity for a college education to the incarcerated population.

“This is the first time my family has been proud of me.”

In a stated effort to get offenders to “think differently about themselves,”  learn skills, and prepare for reentry, the McClure Foundation in 2019 seed-funded CCV’s Prison-to-Career Program.

Beginning in 2023, the U.S. Department of Education began the reinstatement of Pell Grant options for offenders meeting qualifications. This allows incarcerated learners to file for tuition assistance from the Government in pursuit of their degree.

Only months earlier, Sen. Sanders secured $4.5M to expand the reach of the CCV / DOC educational partnership into other DOC facilities. Currently, three of Vermont’s six facilities offer CCV classes: Northwest in St. Albans, Northern in Newport and Chittenden in South Burlington. Plans are underway to expand the program this fall to a fourth facility, Southern in Springfield, and to add another facility each academic semester until all six state correctional facilities offer the program.

“My education has given me something to talk about with my family.”

To no one’s surprise, at the outset of the program, correctional staff raised the obvious question, “Do I need to commit a felony to get the degree I couldn’t afford?”

The partnership responded quickly to this question and made CCV classes available not only to correctional staff but to their spouses and dependents as well. Currently some 35 corrections employees take regular CCV courses. Tuitioning is now a benefit of employment and has been a positive factor in the ongoing challenge to fill vacancies in correctional staffing. Correctional staff attend CCV in person and online like regular matriculated students while offenders’ classes are managed inside the correctional facility. 86% of Corrections staff taking courses said that their work at CCV radically improved their relationships inside the facility.

“It’s a sense of pride you get because you are a part of something positive. Even the Correctional Officers start to treat you better and with more respect.”

Offenders apply and are screened by Corrections for their suitability, security-risk, and behavior. Of those that completed their first semester, 100% continued on to the second semester and 96%  reported “experiencing a success” during the semester.

The “pencil box” is a test of the student’s commitment to themselves. The students are allowed all the materials in it, but the supplies have value in the facility, and many may be tempted to sell the box and its contents. During orientation, a second semester student shared with incoming students, “The pencil box is a test to see how committed you are to yourself. You don’t need it to pass, you don’t need it to graduate, but are you going to sell it, or are you going to be serious about the work you’re doing here?”

The partnership has both risks and challenges, even as the cultural benefits vastly outweighs both.

Students are only allowed to participate if their release does not occur during the semester. Offenders who are released between semesters can continue their work at the nearest CCV academic center.

One significant impediment is the issue of online access. Incarcerated students do not yet have Internet access for classes. Yet so much modern education occurs online in the form of scheduling, information, educational material deliveries, testing and teacher-student communication. CCV and DOC are collaborating to create a secure online learning environment using learning management tools specifically designed for incarcerated populations.

The other less obvious challenge is infrastructural. In a concrete and steel facility designed for security where broadband access is neither needed or allowed, how does one create secure wiring or wireless networks that enable the information collection and distribution critical to educating incarcerated people? Wiring a wood frame building is different from securely wiring a solid concrete facility even with conduit.

But the most significant difference is cultural.

        “I remember feeling proud the first time I got my grades back and could show my kids and family that I was really trying to better myself.”

Historically, prisons have been high-security fortresses designed to protect society, to isolate, and punish offenders. For many in the system   ̶   staff and offenders    ̶   the DOC/CCV partnership has greatly improved prison culture… from an offender lock-down culture to a learning community. Most incarcerated individuals will be released. How can we prepare them to be productive citizens, and what could that mean for the communities they re-enter?

This shift from penal culture to learning community has made a significant difference in how most incarcerated Vermonters see themselves… fulfilling an original goal. And this change in self-perception becomes the starting point for a new life, one that holds promise rather than the despair of confinement.

“The classes bring us together. I have created a bond with people that I would have most likely have never spoken to without CCV.”

Any such experiment is rife with risk. But in order to pilot towards a greater good, improve the lives of those under their custody, facilitate secure community reentry, and reduce recidivism, the CCV/DOC partnership has had the courage to take those risks for the better good.








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