Marla Thao has a binder of diplomas and a criminal record.
There’s her associate of science degree, an office support certificate and her paralegal degree. She got them while serving seven years for promoting prostitution of teenage runaways.
Some of her classes in the Shakopee prison cost just $10. But those cheaper opportunities are drying up, and soon the funding behind them will be gone.
Congress didn’t renew the “Specter” funds, named for correctional education advocate and former Sen. Arlen Specter, for 2011 or 2012. As the leftover money runs out over the next year, some prisons will lose a chunk of their courses; others will have to turn away more inmates. With tight budgets, college for convicts doesn’t sound sweet to many, and it’s often an easy cut to make.
The University of Minnesota used to offer prisoner education, too, but that program fell victim to money problems decades ago.
Numbers show that college education makes an ex-convict less likely to wind up back in prison. Corrections officials and sociologists say the long-term gain of fewer criminals outweighs the cost of educating convicts. But with the Specter cuts, prisons nationwide have to look at other options.
The Minnesota Department of Corrections is still trying to figure it out and hasn’t confirmed any alternatives.
“I’m not a pessimistic person, but I don’t see this one coming back any time soon,” said Stephen Steurer, executive director of the national Correctional Education Association.
“We’re cutting our own throats.”
‘Pick, choose and refuse’
Minnesota prisons got about $150,000 a year in Specter funds for inmates to take college courses over the past decade. Most of that went to partnerships with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, which provided class materials and teachers. When that funding was cut, the state’s Department of Corrections had carryover from previous years to get through this year.
But the DOC doesn’t know where the money will come from for next year.
“It’s an important program, and we’re going to do what we can to try and keep it continuing,” said George Kimball, director of adult education for Minnesota prisons.
Spokeswoman Sarah Berg said the DOC is looking at alternatives. The same is true for prisons around the nation.
In West Virginia, courses will be cut in half or worse, said Fran Warsing, superintendent of the Office of Institutional Education Programs there.
West Virginia used to get about $100,000 a year in Specter funds. Now, Warsing is discussing with colleges how the partnerships can be more cost-efficient.
“There’s no money. They did away with Pell grants,” she said, “and now they’ve done away with this.”
Pell Grants — federal financial aid based on student need — were once available for inmates. Back then, inmates could study much more extensively — some even worked toward doctorate degrees. But Congress ended prisoner eligibility to those grants in 1994 as part of the “tough on crime” era.
About a third of state prisons nationwide offer post-secondary education, according to a 2009 study.
“I’m not a bleeding heart liberal. Some people need to be locked up,” said Don Kiffin, president of the Correctional Education Association. “But a lot of these individuals, they can return to society and be very productive in society.”
Kiffin also oversees education at an Oklahoma prison, and he’s down to his last semester of funds.
His prison got $7,000 to $10,000 a year during the Specter era. He had about $3,500 left over for this semester. Next semester, he’ll have pennies — if anything.
“I have a lot of people coming to me that want to go to school and [are] wondering why I can’t give them money to go,” Kiffin said. “I have to pick, choose and refuse.”
“You can basically kiss the post-secondary programs goodbye,” Steurer said of programming in Maryland, where he worked in corrections before retiring.
Steurer said politicians don’t want to look at possible long-term benefits, like fewer prisoners eating up tax dollars and instead being more productive, tax-paying citizens.
Marla Thao, 29, took history of rock and roll, principles of psychology, math, interpersonal communication and other courses during her seven years behind bars.
She’d given birth to her daughter three months before going to prison and knew that an education would help turn her life around once she got out.
“Education was a really big piece of my journey,” she said. Thao now studies social science at Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis.
“If I hadn’t taken the classes I probably wouldn’t have any goals.”
Evalyn BheAanu took sociology, math and philosophy classes while serving time for aiding and abetting the nonfatal shootings of a man and a pregnant woman in 2008.
BheAanu, now 30, attends St. Paul College and wants to go into biomedical engineering, merging computer science and medicine. She’s taking 21 credits.
She said a philosophy course in prison opened her eyes.
“It really boosted my self-esteem,” BheAanu said. “I can be independent, and I can think openly, and I can speak my mind.”
She’s following through with the plans she made in prison.
“I’m actually on the right road,” she said, “for once in my life.”
In many ways, taking classes behind bars is like any other college. Students must apply to get in. Professors come each week to teach. There’s homework to do and papers to write.
But getting in is partly based on an applicant’s discipline or behavior record, and papers are often handwritten.
Only 15 percent of the more than 9,000 Minnesota inmates enter prison with any college experience.
Right now, eight of Minnesota’s nine facilities offer 11 total courses. The classes are full with about 25 students each, Berg said.
“You’re getting these people that are way less likely to go to college; they’re obviously undereducated,” said Shannon Watson, who has taught courses at the Stillwater prison.
Minnesota prisons give colleges about $5,000 to bring in a professor and class materials.
Restrictions on inmates who can use Specter funding reflect the purpose: helping former inmates fit back into society when they’re released.
Specter money isn’t used for people imprisoned for serious sex crimes or “lifers,” like murderers. Offenders must be 35 years or younger and within seven years of release.
“Somebody who’s committed a heinous act isn’t going to be able to work on their associate degree,” said John Schadl, spokesman for the Minnesota DOC.
At least five MnSCU schools partner with nearby prisons to offer semester-long classes. A few private colleges run programs as well. Globe University, for example, provides instructors at no cost, Schadl said.
Specter-funded classes cost inmates a $10 co-pay.
A big argument in favor of college in prison is economic. It costs $83 a day to keep an inmate locked up in Minnesota, and studies show that classes have reduced re-incarceration rates.
A 2008 study showed participation in education programs reduced re-incarceration by 7 percent to 46 percent.
“It’s common sense that we would like the individuals that are released to become tax-payers instead of tax-takers,” Kiffin said.
And it does more than get offenders jobs, experts say — it can change their outlook on life.
“They go to prison, they’re supposed to be rehabilitated, they have this opportunity and hopefully it changes the way they view their world,” Watson said.
Kiffin said that prisoners’ behavior often improves if they’re taking classes.
He let one inmate take two classes this semester. The man is well-behaved in the prison and had a good academic record.
He was so grateful, he told Kiffin, “Man, I’ll give you a kiss.”
High on drugs and serving time for burglary, Barry Voss got a month of segregation for fighting with a guard.
He was ill and isolated. He had no drugs to shoot up or cigarettes to smoke. But over those weeks, his mind cleared. Alone in a cell in 1972, Voss decided he wanted to change.
That led him to Project Newgate and the University of Minnesota.
“You saw a genuine, sincere effort by people to reach out and try to help people who really truly needed help,” Voss said of the program.
In the early 1970s, the University campus hosted newly-released inmates like Voss who attended classes as part of their re-entry into society.
After becoming full-time students while doing time at the St. Cloud prison, offenders got out on parole or for study release to enroll on campus.
A big part of the program was group therapy. Newly-released inmates, often bewildered by their new independence and responsibility, lived, ate, studied and talked out issues together.
Newgate students lived in University dormitories for the first couple years. In 1972, the school made 1901 University Avenue — once a fraternity house and now University offices — the program’s home.
In 1975, one participant, a sex offender, abducted a nurse and raped her. In a Minnesota Daily article on the incident, then-University police Chief Eugene Wells questioned Newgate.
“Putting a rapist back in [the University area] is like trying to cure an alcoholic by making him a bartender.”
But for the most part, the program was well-received.
In a 1979 academic journal article by the program’s leaders, a “Newgater” explained how the environment and conversations with housemates helped him.
“You find out that some of the things you thought were really lousy about yourself really aren’t that bad, that it’s a common problem,” he said.
The group therapy was worthwhile for Voss.
“Everybody has these collective experiences and you add [them] up … and they can solve almost any problem,” he said. “If you can’t deal with these problems, you revert back to something you know very well.”
Voss said he hasn’t done drugs since that day in 1972, and he’s now a criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis.
Ronald Severson, who directed Project Newgate, said then-University President Malcolm Moos wanted to extend the school’s resources beyond the average classroom.
Newgaters blended into campus.
“There would be no way to know that these were not just regular students,” Severson said. And that helped.
“You don’t want to draw attention to the fact that you’ve just completed three years [in prison].”
After its original funding ran out, Project Newgate struggled to make ends meet and was gone by the mid-’70s.
The program cut re-incarceration, Severson said. Graduates found the shared sense of responsibility and the collective challenges helped them prepare for the real world. Some, like Voss, went on to get more education and find success.
The same year it opened the Newgate house, the University began supporting prisoners with the Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners group, which allowed law students to get experience by helping inmates with civil matters like divorce or bankruptcy.
But once budgets got tight in the early 2000s, the University backed away, “to its noncredit,” said Brad Colbert, who now heads LAMP at the William Mitchell College of Law, which took over the program.
The University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing Education also did some work with prisons, but that stopped in the 1980s. The University doesn’t have any educational partnerships with Minnesota prisons now, spokesman Jeff Falk said.
Many of the prison education programs have carryover funds from previous years to keep classes afloat as they look for alternatives for next year.
Classes will still be available for some, but more prisoners will soon have to pay full tuition themselves. Many won’t be able to afford it.
“If you don’t provide that kind of stuff for them,” Thao said, “then they’re just going to go back out there and go back to what they know and commit more crimes.”
Few groups are adamantly against prisoner higher education. It’s just easy to cut and a political taboo.
Watson, who also helped facilitate the incarcerated students program at St. Cloud State University, says people ask her why their kids have to jump financial aid hurdles to go to college when prisoners get it for free.
It’s kept under the radar, she said — “it’s hard for society to stomach that moral pill.”
The schools that do participate feel it’s part of their duty to “to provide education equally for all,” Watson said.
In a 2011 keynote speech at a prison education conference, Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, linked what experts have coined the “era of mass incarceration” to the future. About 700,000 people leave U.S. prisons each year.
America imprisons a larger fraction of its people than any country in the world, he reminded his colleagues.
“As we live with the consequences of the massive buildup of our prison population, we face the long-term costs of that policy choice,” Travis warned, suggesting public higher education may be the answer to reintegrating the millions leaving prison.