After decades without a college prison program, 22 men at a Tennessee prison became the first class to graduate from a state penitentiary since the 1980s, according to a press release.
In January, the class of 2017 was awarded associate degrees from the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI) prison college program, while serving time at the Turney Center Industrial Complex.
“To succeed in college in the free world, one must possess smarts and stamina that exceeds your average bear,” said Molly Lasagna, THEI executive director. “Imagine how those qualities have to be magnified in students who are also working to navigate prison.”
The degrees and college program are in partnership with the Nashville State Community College. Dr. Terry Brown, the community college vice president, was in attendance to witness this historic event.
During the graduation, THEI gave out its first-ever Academic Excellence Award to one of its top students. Seven other graduates were honored for earning an overall perfect 4.0 GPA.
Dr. Sammy Arroyo from Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, another college prison program in New York, gave the keynote address.
“The great Nelson Mandela (the late President of South Africa) once said ‘After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many hills to climb,’” Arroyo said. “So to all of the graduates, I want to encourage you to continue to be resilient, continue to work hard, continue to be leaders, and demonstrate to the world through your selfless actions that you are all worthy of second chances.”
Family and friends gathered to celebrate the success of both the college graduates and four other prisoners, who earned their GEDs.
“The state typically spends $71,000 a year to house an inmate. It costs about $5,000 total to help put one [incarcerated] student through community college”, reports Fast Company.
“It was an honor both to watch the men receive their diplomas and to see them celebrate the achievement with their families,” Arroyo said. “Hudson Link thanks the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative for inviting us to witness this incredible event. Best of luck to the Class of 2017!”
For the past six years, the THEI college program has been educating more than 200 people serving time inside Tennessee prisons. It currently serves roughly 90 students at Turney prison and 50 students at the Northwest Correctional Complex.
“The (students) are dedicated to their own learning,” Lasagna said. “They are not forced into college; they choose it for themselves. College behind bars is an enormous undertaking, but the effects go far beyond the classroom.”
Lasagna added that the students said the program made them better husbands, better friends, better fathers and better sons. They learned to tackle challenging projects and developed confidence in problem-solving skills to make smarter decisions.
In support of the program, some members from the Tennessee Legislature attended the graduation. The legislature has allotted some financial backing to help the program expand its services.
“According to a RAND analysis, every $1 invested in such [inmate] education generates at least $4 in economic return,” reports Fast Company.
“We have seen our program formalize, becoming…accredited and thereby able to offer degree-bearing coursework to our students,” Lasagna said. “Now that we are off and running, it’s time to reflect: are we correctly identifying and addressing the needs of the people we serve? How invested are we in the health and success of all communities in Tennessee?”
With those questions in mind, Lasagna said the organization will prioritize quality over quantity from the moment a potential student-prisoner expresses interest in college to the moment they receive their college degree.
“Since I’ve begun this work, I have learned of the many challenges that our students are up against,” Lasagna said. “It was a remarkable graduation and we’re excited to do it again next year!”
Lasagna and the staff at THEI thanked the Tennessee Department of Correction for its work to bring college degree programs to its facilities. Lasagna added that these programs help prepare the men for successful reentry to the community.