November 2, 2017
Any criminal conviction puts significant barriers before those wanting to improve their lives. It also reduces the pool of job candidates unnecessarily, according to two women who are working to help former inmates become college-bound students.
As the U.S. releases inmates at the rate of 700,000 a year, we could soon be living in a society in which more citizens have a criminal record than those who don't, says Bev Sharp, a retired 30-year veteran of the federal Bureau of Prisons. She is determined not to waste even one life, and as chair of the re-entry council in five Kentucky counties, Sharp is in a position to make a difference. Besides, as Sharp points out, it's becoming increasingly difficult for employers to find job applicants who haven't been arrested or convicted of a felony. Sharp and a growing band of advocates are working to clear the thicket of barriers — human resources, education, healthcare, housing, even food — that prevent people from starting over after they've served their time.
People ready to help includes Morehead State University Educational Opportunity Center assistant director Tammy Meredith-Castle, one of Sharp's collaborators. For 24 years, the EOC at Morehead State University has been helping adults who want to enter or re-enter postsecondary education, while overcoming a range of barriers including incarceration. As a former post-secondary education teacher and adult education director, Meredith-Castle established a program with the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice and the penal system to help incarcerated people earn their General Education Development certificates, or GEDs. In that capacity, she observed a vast population of people who were more than capable of receiving college degrees.
The advent of online education has been a godsend for the prison population and people in treatment centers, she says, but some programs have requirements that incarcerated participants cannot meet. This is a challenge, especially for inmates serving longer sentences.
This summer, Meredith-Castle began a pilot program in Perry County at the Kentucky River Regional Jail with Epic Learn on Demand, a grant-funded education program that is entirely online, managed through six Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges. EPIC participants gain access to an array of certificate, diploma, and degree studies. Working with computers on loan from EOC and support from the jail's administration, which set up an I.T. network, an EOC counselor guides 10 incarcerated participants at a time toward higher education. The counselor helps them determine their eligibility for other financial aid — which is available, depending on the criminal charges — and counsels them on admissions and expectations toward suitable degrees they can earn strictly online.
Not every subject can be learned remotely. "You can't [learn to] be a welder online," for example, Meredith-Castle says. Sharp also points out that a conviction narrows the realm of possibilities, one of the barriers she hopes, eventually, to help eliminate. Still, the pilot program offers programs in viable possible futures in areas like I.T. and medical information technology among others.
The new EOC pilot in the Perry County jail has a waiting list of more than 60 people. Meredith-Castle estimates that the program could serve 500 students if deployed across the service region of 36 counties. Right now, that calls for computer donations and I.T. networks — that, and willingness to support the program. "It's taken a while to convince everyone that this is actually a good thing," Meredith-Castle says about the pilot program.
"It's a daunting task to take on," says Sharp. Among the challenges she sees for the program's success is stigma reduction. To that end, she recently held a breakfast with legislators and employers in Kentucky and West Virginia to discuss reasons to hire an ex-offender. After eating breakfast, some of those present shocked fellow diners by getting up, identifying themselves as ex-offenders and telling their stories about their re-entry journeys, replete with difficulties securing employment. One woman couldn't pursue social work because she had been charged with daytime larceny for stealing $60 from her grandmother.
The impact of these testimonials was immediate. Within weeks, West Virginia passed the Second Chance Act, allowing some former offenders to get their charges reduced after a certain time with no arrests. Said Sharp, "Stories like that make people think, 'Wow.' Maybe we need to rethink some of these issues with what we allow people to do and how we restrict their ability to access programs and services."