A widely cited Emory University study found that while 76% of incarcerated Americans return to prison within five years, that rate drops to 55% for those who take high school classes, 30% for those who complete vocational training, and 13.7% for those who complete an associate degree.
Community colleges play a key role in ensuring that people leaving prison don’t return and, instead, get onto the path toward a productive and sustainable life path. Sometimes, this takes the form of educational programs while they’re still in prison, but colleges are also recognizing the value of setting up reentry programs for those who have just been released, with an emphasis on workforce programming.
Such programs can be a challenge to stand up but rewarding for all concerned. There are naturally costs involved, and two-year colleges need to find partners, put supports and interventions in place ranging from emotional to financial, prepare their faculty and staff to support this population and successfully place the formerly incarcerated — a group that businesses don’t always welcome with open arms — into gainful employment.
A way to return
Skagit Valley College (SVC) in Mount Vernon, Washington, launched such a program a decade ago. Dubbed the Community Integration Program, the effort works with those who have been recently released — and those out for some time — to help them pursue their educational and career goals.
Over the past decade, the program has grown from one student in the 2012-13 school year, to as many as 70 enrolled immediately prior to Covid; overall it’s served “a few hundred,” says Aaron Kirk, reentry navigator, who has been with the program all along. At the outset, SVC worked closely with the Skagit County Community Justice Center (the local jail) to build awareness, presenting monthly about the Community Integration Program.
“Students who had been incarcerated talked about their current experiences in college and the supports available,” Kirk says. “It’s more credible coming from formerly incarcerated students: ‘Oh, there’s financial aid, really?’ It made a big difference.”
Partners to the effort have spanned the local drug court’s diversion program, State of Washington Re-entry Navigator Program, the local Department of Corrections Field Office and the state’s WorkSource workforce development program, Kirk says. Re-entry navigators help SVC connect those returning to the area with housing, admissions and financial aid so they’re as ready as possible, while WorkSource “send[s] people our way,” he says.
A STEP-UP at Shasta
Shasta College in Redding, California, began its STEP-UP (Shasta Technical Education Program – Unified Partnership) program seven years ago to serve the formerly incarcerated and those on probation, court supervision or work release throughout northeastern California, according to Robert Bowman, program manager and director of regional restorative justice.
The community college partners with the state Department of Corrections as well as local probation officers and sheriff’s departments, an employment agency called the Smart Business Resource Center, and an academy that assists with high school diploma completion, Bowman says. Students learn everything from the building trades, to tree trimming, to fire line training.
“That’s pretty important in the last few years, with the devastating wildfires,” he says.
The STEP-UP program operates on grant dollars, not a regular allocation, but that model has proved fruitful, Bowman says, with student capacity growing from 10 to about 110 prior to Covid; now it’s about 80.
“I would have far less gray hair if it hadn’t grown so much,” he says. “We have expanded into extended sites. I now have grant support from the Tehama Probation Department to fund 10 students, and funding support from the Shasta County Community Corrections Partnership to fund up to 75 students. We also receive support from the Butte County Office of Education toward students who are being supervised by the California Adult Parole Unit. We received a sizable innovation award from the state that allows us to fund other colleges with mini-grants to do restorative justice education.”
Building out partnerships and programs
In North Carolina, 20,000 people are released from prisons each year. Many of them lack skills and struggle to find a job. Through its prison program, Cleveland Community College (CCC) in Shelby, North Carolina, is working to change that for prisoners at nearby Lincoln Correctional Center.
“Our facility and our training is second-to-none,” says Wes Upton, CCC’s prison program coordinator and a welding instructor. “It’s as good as you’re going to get. For these guys, this is their last chance at being successful. That mentality comes in. We preach to them about hard work, ethics and doing your best. They soak it up like a sponge. We have a lot of success stories; a lot of [grateful] letters that have come in over the years.”
It is possible for inmates to earn certifications in trades like welding, plumbing, electrical and carpentry by the time they are released, says Tony Fogleman, vice president of economic and workforce development at CCC.
“It’s inspiring to them to feel like they’ve achieved something tangible, to have something in their hand that they can take outside to the workforce, to help them get started on their next career,” he says.
To help facilitate this success, Fogleman said the college tries to update its equipment and make sure that the welding machinery, for example, remains state of the art. The state legislature has provided recurring monies for that type of purchase, he said, and the school recently received a $1.5 million allotment for renovations of buildings and facilities.
“We have the opportunity to have a model program,” he says. “We are working with an architecture firm to prepare a complete site plan. It will include renovation of our current buildings as well as adding new buildings … We’re trying to update what we’ve got. There may even be a point where we tear down old buildings. This facility has been here since the 1930s; there’s a lot of older infrastructure still here.”