College behind bars is rare today

Four years ago Madelita Medrano was arrested on a drug-related charge. She ended up facing an eight-year sentence in South Middlesex Correctional Center for Women, a minimum security prison.

"When I first came here, I was traumatized. I just wanted to hide under a big rock, but there was no rock to hide under," says first-time offender Ms. Medrano.

Instead of hiding, she enrolled in college and became one of nine inmates at South Middlesex currently taking classes through Boston University's Prison Education Program.

So far, Medrano has earned college credits in statistics, psychology, creative writing, political science, and African-American history. She expects to finish her Bachelor of Liberal Studies - the only degree BU offers for prisoners - upon her release in 2008.

But Medrano's story is an unusual one today. Across the country, college-degree prison programs are about as rare as a perfect SAT score. Boston University is the only college in Massachusetts that offers undergraduate credit courses to about 150 prisoners at three different prisons in the state.

More than a decade ago, Pell Grants - federal financial aid given to low-income college students - were available to prisoners. But some politicians - and voters - argued that prisoners shouldn't be given a free ride. Particularly in an era when many families struggle to afford college tuition, they said, it was unseemly at best for prisoners to receive free tuition.

Studies over the years have consistently shown that prisoners who take college classes while incarcerated are less likely to commit another crime. However, opponents of prison education counter that the inmates who take the initiative to pursue academics in jail are a self-selecting group that might be a lower risk for recidivism even without the classes.

In 1994, Congress declared prisoners ineligible for Pell grants. Although national statistics are sketchy, they show that an estimated 300 colleges participated in prison degree programs before 1994. Today, that number is around two dozen.

"There's certainly been a roller-coaster ride of changes over the past couple of decades," says Richard Tewksbury, professor of justice administration at the University of Louisville. "In the early to mid-1990s, we saw programs shut down, shrinking in size dramatically, and losing almost all level of public support. In the past couple of years, we've seen a real rebounding of programs."

But not necessarily college programs, says Stephen Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association. "When it comes to academic programs, very few states do that anymore," he says. Instead, many states emphasize vocational education. "It's so much easier to talk to senators and say, 'We're trying to prepare these people for the job market. They're not sitting around reading literature. We're tending more to their practical need.' "

Some inmate advocates, however, argue that college courses are practical for many inmates. "They're laying the groundwork for us to get our degrees. It's helped my writing and I've gained so much knowledge," says Tracey O., a South Middlesex inmate who prefers to keep her last name private. When released next year, Tracey hopes to continue her education in marketing at Boston University.

In addition to helping prepare her for gainful employment outside prison, the courses meet another basic need, Tracey insists. "There is a hunger for learning here," she says.

There are also maximum-security prisons that offer college courses. At Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York, a maximum-security prison for women, a consortium of private colleges offers classes for inmates.

A 2002 study tracked 2,305 inmates released from Bedford Hills over a three-year period. Only 7.7 percent of the inmates who had taken college courses while incarcerated committed new crimes and returned to prison, while 29.9 percent of the inmates who did not take courses were jailed again.

Even in a minimum-security prison, however, studying can be challenging. Inmates don't have library or Internet access, and even basic equipment like photocopy machines is not available.

It's lawful for them to use a word processor, but it's a matter of resources. Some of the bigger prisons, such as the medium-security facility across the street, has a computer lab (although Internet access is blocked).

For their African-American history class reports, Tracey and Medrano had no choice but to handwrite 20 pages, in addition to a bibliography.

At Middlesex, cells are more like dorm rooms, with heavy doors rather than bars. Before their curfew of 9:30 p.m., both Medrano and Tracey usually study outside or in quiet areas indoors. During the day, Tracey works at a bagel/sandwich shop for 30 hours a week and Medrano works at the Department of Corrections, where she makes US flags, eyeglass cases, and laundry bags. Half of their money goes into a personal account and the other half goes into a savings account, available to them when they're released.

They work in the mornings so they can study in the afternoons.

For their final project in a Women and Health course this summer, Tracey and Medrano interviewed four inmates who had experienced domestic violence. They were allowed to use a typewriter and an overhead projector for their presentation. Their teacher made transparencies and printed out research materials for them.

Yet as much as prison students struggle with the lack of modern resources, they say that actually the most difficult part about college behind bars is not seeing their professors more than once a week.

"We can't pick up the phone or stop by their office," says Tracey. "But they do stay after class and they'll help us as much as they can."

Before Tracey was sentenced to three to five years for an alcohol-related car accident, she worked for a sports medicine company. She had some college credits to her name but didn't see college as a priority at the time.

Today, she says, earning a degree seems essential. "I'm the only one in my family who doesn't have one," she says.

Medrano would be the first in her family to earn a degree. Although as a teenager she won a scholarship to Boston's Northeastern University, she began working at a bank after high school to support her family. Her plans for college eventually faded.

Because she didn't have previous college credits, she first had to qualify for BU's program by taking correspondence courses to earn the necessary nine credits.

"I was sentenced to eight years, but I'm going to school and making it work for me," she says. Her crime, she adds, is "a stone in my life that I tripped over, but that's not who I am."

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