Grant allows education opportunities for inmates in correctional facilities
Posted: Monday, June 22, 2009 11:48 am
The Messenger 06.22.09
Opportunities to change lives for the better can happen anywhere — even behind prison walls.
Thanks to a partnership involving Northwest Correctional Complex near Tiptonville, the Tennessee Department of Correction and the University of Tennessee at Martin, inmates can become college students and prepare for productive lives once their sentences are completed.
College courses are offered to Northwest inmates through a pilot program funded by a federal grant, “Grants to States for Workplace and Community Transition Training for Incarcerated Youth Offenders.” The program, which began in January 2008, was originally offered to inmates under the age of 25 who were within five years of their release dates.
The grant will expand July 1 to include offenders 35 and younger and is now called the “Grants to States for Workplace and Community Transition Training for Incarcerated Individuals Program.”
Students are expected to have a history of good behavior and credits earned by those in the program can be applied toward a degree upon their release from prison. Sex offenders and those convicted of murder are ineligible to participate.
Studies have shown that former inmates who have academic and vocational training are less likely to re-offend when they return home. Offenders who possess a post-secondary degree have the lowest recidivism rate.
The Lake County Regional Correctional Facility opened in 1981 to house up to 500 inmates. In 1992, Northwest Corrections Center was opened and is now called Site 1. The entire facility, now the second largest prison in Tennessee with 2,400 inmates and an annual operating budget of about $50 million, houses inmates who range in classification from close-custody to medium security.
The American Correctional Association, which conducts an intensive accreditation/inspection process every three years, has accredited the complex since it opened.
Northwest’s focus on public safety/security, education and community service makes the prison a good fit for the educational partnership. Warden Tony Parker, a UT Martin criminal justice graduate, is proud that the prison has “a lot of educational opportunities for inmates.” Besides the academic classes offered by UT Martin, the prison also offers basic education and vocational classes.
“We have a couple of vocational classes that are skilled community service groups,” he said. “They go out and build libraries, churches (and) for non-profit governmental organizations. We do a lot of work in our surrounding communities.”
As for the academic classes, Dr. Leslie LaChance, associate professor of English, became involved when her department was asked to provide someone to teach an English course at the prison. She had previous experience teaching at the former Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville when she first came to Tennessee in the early 1990s and earlier at Fishkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York.
LaChance taught courses in the first-year composition sequence at Northwest in spring and fall 2008, and her experience was positive.
“I thought that the inmate students were very highly engaged and highly motivated,” she said. “They understood that they were being given a privilege, and so they treated the course and my presence there as a privilege. ...”
Beyond the university’s work with inmates, staff members at Northwest and four other Tennessee prisons benefit from classes offered by UT Martin’s Office of Extended Campus and Continuing Education. Classes cover general education, criminal justice and occupational licensure for prison employees.
“People teaching in a prison have the same licensing requirements as those teaching in public schools,” said Katy Crapo, UT Martin director of degree programs and distance learning. “These classes allow prison staff to take courses for enrichment, to complete an undergraduate degree, or to complete licensing requirements for teaching a variety of courses.”
Whether it’s offering courses for inmates through the grant or professional-development classes for prison staff members, UT Martin is making a positive impact in the Tennessee correction system. On a personal level, LaChance is satisfied that she has made a difference with the inmates.
“I think that for some of the students in those classes, they had not ever considered the possibility that they could pursue a college education ...” she said. “The difference that it made is it opened a door for many of them that maybe they hadn’t thought could ever be open.”
inmates, Northwest Correctional Complex, Tennessee Department of Correction, University of Tennessee at Martin