More than 2.3-million people are incarcerated in this country. For many of these men and women, prison is not a place of rehabilitation or restoration, but a graduate school of criminal activity. The more time people spend in prison, the less able they are to function in the outside world.
But one college in Ohio is trying to change this narrative.
Ashland University is a 140-year-old school affiliated with the Brethren Church. With 5700 students and a 135-acre campus, it appears to be the very picture of a traditional college. But Ashland has a program that is unique in the nation, because Ashland also serves more than 1500 prisoners in five states and the District of Columbia. So far, more than 300 people have graduated with certificates, associate, or bachelor’s degrees.
Of course, educating prisoners is not a new thing. If you ever saw the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” you know that the prison library and preparation for the GED, or high school equivalency diploma, played a key part in the plot that movie. Motivated by its Christian mission, Ashland has been involved in prisoner education for 50 years. (In fact, Ashland has been working since the 1960s in the very prison where “Shawshank” was filmed.)
What’s new is distance learning technology. Ashland University partners with a company called Jpay to provide tablet computers to incarcerated individuals. Students use their tablets to study, do their coursework, take tests and sync the devices to the kiosks to submit their deliverables for grading. Students can also engage with Ashland professors through a messaging tool. According to JPay, “Almost 80,000 incarcerated individuals have enrolled in courses since the program’s inception across multiple Department of Corrections. Over 33,000 college credits have been earned by students since 2016.”
So, who pays for these programs? Pell Grants are a primary funding source. This federal government program is the same one that provides funding for more traditional students. Unlike a lot of government programs, where the return on investment (ROI) is questionable, tracking the ROI on educational programs for prisoners is relatively easy, and the results are significant. A 2014 Department of Justice/RAND Corporation study found that incarcerated individuals who participate in educational programs while incarcerated are 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of their release than their peers who did not participate in such programs. According to the DOJ/Rand study, that means that for every dollar invested, four to five dollars in incarceration costs are saved.
“Reducing recidivism is a critical challenge affecting the entire country, and, as educators, we understand that giving incarcerated individuals access to higher education is a pivotal tool that will help them be successful after their release,” said Todd Marshall, Ph.D., Associate Provost at Ashland University.
Ashland University is operating in 11 facilities in its home state of Ohio. However, its biggest partner is Louisiana, where it is in 16 facilities. A key reason for the strong presence in Louisiana is the early advocacy of that state’s Department of Public Safety and corrections Education Director, Kim Barnette. She said, “During my tenure as Education Director, I have seen the education offerings to Louisiana’s offender population grow at a slow, steady pace, but it wasn’t until 2015, when we introduced Ashland University’s program, that I saw the greatest positive interest in college interest and activity. I consider the introduction of Ashland to Louisiana’s state and local prisons one of my greatest achievements.”
Is the program working? An inmate we’ll call J.M. at Richland Correctional Institute in Ohio thinks so. He said, “When I began this education journey, I knew that to become the person I wanted to be, I needed to change that person I was at that particular time. Ashland University [has] given me the opportunity to become the man our Creator meant for me to be.”
This article is one in a series based on the ideas in the book Restoring All Things: God’s Audacious Plan To Change The World Through Everyday People by Warren Cole Smith and John Stonestreet. To see all the articles in this series, click here. If you know of an individual or ministry that might make a good “Restoring All Things” profile, please email firstname.lastname@example.org