Valley State, first HBCU to offer a prison college program in Mississippi


Those incarcerated in two Delta prisons will be able to begin earning four-year degrees from Mississippi Valley State University this fall for the first time in more than two decades.

Valley State’s Prison Educational Partnership Program (PEPP) is one of a growing number of colleges offering classes in prison with Second Chance Pell, a federal program that restores access to income-based financial aid for incarcerated people.

Seven colleges and nonprofits currently to offer college and vocational courses in Mississippi prisons, but PEPP will be the first program run by a historically black college in the state.

Provost Kathie Stromile Golden said it’s important because while people of all races can participate in the program, in Mississippi those incarcerated are disproportionately black. The PEPP will be a way for them to establish a link with an institution of the black community outside.

Stromile Golden said she views prison education as ensuring that incarcerated students know that their communities have not forgotten them.

“Many of the incarcerated people are parents and relatives of our students,” Stromile Golden said. “It’s in our interest to do something like this, because these are the same people who will come back to our community.”

The university accepted about 50 incarcerated students for the first semester of classes at Bolivar County Correctional Facility and Delta Correctional Facility, a Greenwood jail for people who violated parole. The Second Chance Pell program is limited to incarcerated students with a high school diploma or GED degree who will eventually be released.

Rochelle McGee-Cobbs, an associate professor of criminal justice who will serve as PEPP’s director, has worked with faculty and administration over the past year to set up the prison education program. She made several trips to prisons to meet potential students, bringing paper applications as they had no access to computers to apply online.

Students have expressed interest in business administration, computer science and engineering technology courses, so those are the majors Valley State plans to offer, McGee-Cobbs said.

She does not yet know which courses PEPP will offer in the fall, as it will depend on the transcripts of the students, whom she drove to Bolivar County on a Thursday in June to collect.

“Here at Mississippi Valley State University, regardless of where a student is when they arrive, we try to make sure they’re fed,” McGee-Cobbs said. “We try to make sure that we meet the needs of each student.”

Stromile Golden said Valley won’t know until the fall how many professors will be teaching in the program. Instructors will be paid to travel to prisons, but the university determines whether instructors will take classes as part of their regular load or as part of an additional class.

Teachers who choose to participate in the program will receive training from Jamii Sisterhood, a non-profit organization that works to increase the number of black teachers in prisons. Stromile Golden said the training, which is supported by a grant from Project Freedom, will emphasize culturally competent approaches to teaching incarcerated students without adopting a “saviour” mindset, which can be demeaning.

“Teaching indoors is not the same as teaching outdoors,” she said.

Incarcerated Valley State students will have access to the university’s counseling and financial aid offices. Stromile Golden and McGee-Cobbs also work in partnership with reintegration programs to help students when they are released

College prisons like PEPP, backed by federal financial aid that incarcerated people need to pay for tuition, were the standard for decades. That changed when President Bill Clinton revoked access to Pell Grants in the Crimes Bill 1994 a way to look “tough on crime”. Hundreds of college prison programs have been closed, cut off from the public funding that made them viable.

Over the past 15 years, as incarceration has become more expensive due to population growth, lawmakers have begun to revisit education programs in prisons, which studies have repeatedly shown reduce recidivism.

Second Chance Pell, the program in which Valley State participates, was launched in 2015 as an “experience” by the administration of President Barack Obama to allow incarcerated people to access Pell Grants. In December 2020, Congress past a law restoring full access, regardless of a person’s sentence, to Pell Grants.

In Mississippi, Burl Cain, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, supported education programs in prisons and restored access to Pell grants for incarcerated people as “a huge opportunity to cut costs”. Cain met Holmes Community College and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, which also participate in the Second Chance Pell program.

“We need this training and these skills in the prison to save costs because not only do the classes keep inmates focused and calm, but we need the training so they can train other inmates. to help us run the prison,” he said. said in an MDOC press release.

The emphasis on education in prison as a means of reducing recidivism is also found in the Second Chance Pell guidelines. According a USDOE fact sheetparticipating schools should only “enroll students in post-secondary education and training programs that prepare them for high-demand occupations they are not legally barred from entering due to restrictions on formerly incarcerated individuals who obtain the necessary licenses or certifications for these professions.

Stromile Golden said Valley State’s prison education program is also a form of “restorative justice,” an approach to criminal justice that involves addressing how an act of harm has affected an entire community, not just the individual. author and victim.

“For African Americans, it’s part of our heritage, and we’re all steeped in the Baptist church code that says, ‘forgive, forgive, forgive.’ But for the grace of God, any one of us could easily be on the other side,” she said. “From my point of view, it’s the right thing to do. It’s a win-win for our community.

— Article credit to Molly Minta of mississippi today


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