Using Innovative and Strategic Solutions to Provide Access to Underserved Populations Through a Corrections Education Program

Bobby Beauchamp
Innovation Showcase

For decades, Jackson College (JC) has been a U.S. leader in providing higher education access and opportunity to incarcerated students. The town of Jackson, Michigan, has long been known as a “prison city,” and three large correctional facilities are located less than 15 miles from JC’s Central Campus. In 1967, the college offered its first class “inside the walls.” In 1969-1970, a pilot prison education program for the Southern Michigan Prison was launched to provide qualifying inmates an opportunity to further their education.

Jackson Community College (as it was then called) was one of 26 colleges in the nation to make an associate degree available to prison inmates. At one time, prisoners were bussed to campus to attend classes from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., during which time they participated in vocational program training in coordination with the extensive curriculum offered at the prison facility. JC’s prison education program would continue until 1994, when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act prohibited incarcerated individuals from accessing federal financial aid, including Pell grants. Because inmates typically lack financial resources, this law effectively brought prison education to a halt across the country.

Jackson College’s Corrections Education Program (CEP) had a rebirth in 2012 with a successful self-pay program established at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility. The program began with 18 students who had a sponsor (usually a family member) to help them cover the cost of tuition for three developmental classes and one noncredit offering in computers. The self-pay program would eventually grow to more than 200 students seeking associate degrees and certificates at several Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) facilities.

At that time, MDOC started to actively seek ways to expand higher education access to inmates across the state. In July 2013, MDOC applied for an Unlocking Potential: Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education grant from the Vera Institute for Justice. Jackson College became a key partner with MDOC and, through this grant, played a central role in a three-state (Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina) demonstration project that would span more than four years. In 2016, JC was selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Program, an initiative that has allowed 67 higher education institutions to once again award Pell Grants to incarcerated students. The DOE allotted Jackson College more Pell Grants (1,305) than any other higher education institution nationwide to provide to eligible prisoners through this program.

Program Overview

CEP students account for approximately 11 percent of the overall student enrollment of JC. CEP currently serves 500+ incarcerated students at eight correctional facilities across Michigan. Students in the CEP can earn one or more of the following degrees and/or certificates:

  • Associate of Applied Science in Business Administration
  • Certificate of Business Administration
  • Associate of Arts
  • Associate of Science

Since 2014 the CEP has awarded close to 700 degrees, certificates, and skill sets to students on the inside, including 200 former CEP students who transferred to other schools upon release. On average, 300 students (140 full-time; 160 part-time) make the Dean's List each semester.

In its early years, CEP was run by a Director, one staff member, and one faculty member under the Academic Dean. With the growth of enrollment and facilities served, the Corrections Education team grew to include a Director and three Student Success Navigators, and is overseen by an Associate Dean in Student Services as well as a Dean who serves as an Academic Liaison. Today, CEP is part of the Students Services department at JC and job descriptions for all new department employees include working with the CEP student population.

CEP Student Assistance and Programs

Jackson College is totally committed to student success. CEP provides assistance programs to help students successfully navigate through their educational journey.

Educational Communities

Educational communities are a collaborative effort between JC and the MDOC to provide a culture of learning within the facility that takes place not only in the classroom but also in students’ living areas. Educational communities group likeminded individuals with similar goals, recognizing that peer networks can increase the likelihood that students will achieve their educational goals.

  • Student Ambassadors: Students who have successfully navigated through CEP have the opportunity serve as mentors to new students.
  • Volunteer Lab Assistants: Students who have mastered a specific topic in math, CIS, and English serve as classroom assistants.
  • Writing Fellows: Students assist fellow students through peer-to-peer writing support.
  • Men of Merit: Students focus on developing strong leadership skills in this multicultural leadership initiative.
  • Study Labs: Students have a quiet place to study by themselves or with tutors.
  • Computer Labs: Students acquire proficiency in computer and technical skills on JC laptops.

Phi Theta Kappa

Since February 2017, when the Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) Honor Society opened membership to incarcerated students, JC’s chapter—Alpha Rho Lambda—has gained 296 incarcerated members. We were the first chapter in the nation to hold induction ceremonies inside the facilities and the first to name an incarcerated member to the chapter officer team. JC’s chapter also has the highest number of PTK EDGE professional development program completers in Michigan. In 2019, an incarcerated PTK member at the federal prison received the highest honor that PTK bestows on its members: Most Distinguished Chapter Member. This year, another incarcerated PTK member was acknowledged as a Distinguished Participant of the Honors Case Study. PTK’s Michigan Region awards scholarships to five students; this year, for the first time, one winner was an incarcerated member.

CEP graduate Jaquillian Chandler he has been released and is currently enrolled at University of Michigan.

Committed to Student Success

While our CEP students are provided with academic resources while incarcerated, we also understand the importance of providing post-release support and wraparound services. These vital services have proven to be critical in ensuring successful reentry and reintegration into society for the CEP student population.

Jobs for Jets

All students, alumni, and community members can use the College Central Network tool. Once a profile is created, students may begin to use the job board, review available career resources, and upload resumes.

Jackets for Jets

Jackets for Jets provides access to professional clothing to assist students in their efforts to prepare for the workplace. JC is committed to our students’ success, and that includes helping them to dress for success on the job.

Food Pantry

Students experiencing food insecurity may reach out for assistance through the Jackson College Food Pantry. Food pantry team members help meet students’ individual needs.

Oasis Center

JC partners with Family Service and Children’s Aid (FSCA) to offer its students and employees a wide range of behavioral health services. Licensed mental health and substance abuse clinicians provide individualized support on campus or to assist individuals in obtaining services at FSCA’s office in downtown Jackson. An Oasis Navigator connects students and employees with the appropriate community support and advocates for individuals as needed.

Center for Student Success

The Center for Student Success (CSS) provides a variety of support services free of charge to JC students, including peer and faculty tutoring, mental health referral, temporary assistance with transportation, workshops/seminars, and the TRIO program. In addition, CSS staff is committed to adapting the college’s general services to meet the individual needs of otherwise qualified students with disabilities, thus providing equal access to all programs and facilities.

Jackson College Foundation

The Jackson College Foundation offers numerous academic scholarships to students each year. While the majority of CEP students are Pell grant recipients, those who are not Pell eligible have the opportunity to apply for scholarships specifically set aside for our CEP student population.

Harriet Myer Student Emergency Fund

Emergency funds have been donated by friends of the college as well as employees, their families, and others who are interested in helping students succeed. When funding is available, grants are provided to meet one-time unforeseen emergencies that would otherwise prevent students from continuing their education at JC.

CEP students who have been released and demonstrate need are eligible to apply for assistance through the Harriet Myer fund. In the past, CEP students have utilized this funding to help pay for resources such as laptops.

Transfer Information

Many CEP students continue their education beyond an associate degree. Several former CEP students have, upon release, been accepted to schools such as University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University, Western Michigan University, Wayne State University, and Northwood University. JC works with students both before and after release to ensure that they can transfer to the school of their choice. Additional transfer services include providing letters of recommendation, transfer credit and scholarship information, and academic transcripts.

Continuing CEP During the Pandemic

In March 2020, COVID-19 brought about great changes to Jackson College’s CEP. To halt the spread of this deadly virus, our MDOC partners stopped all face-to-face classes. CEP was faced with either aborting the program and leaving hundreds of students stranded with no means of completion or adapting the program to a distance learning format that would allow students to continue to make progress toward their education goals. Through collaboration and compromise with partners, CEP implemented its first distance learning model across all facilities in spring 2020. This new modality both tested and proved the strength of the partnership between JC and its DOC partners. Together, we have been able to adjust to a very turbulent environment and provide high-quality education to our students in CEP despite the pandemic.

We have viewed the problems presented by COVID-19 as opportunities to advance a somewhat archaic program through technology. For example, email communications between CEP instructor and student take place via a secure email network through JPay. In addition, students are now allowed to possess a laptop to view class lectures and coursework. Through a healthy partnership, including collaboration with and approval by the MDOC, a new normal of corrections in higher education learning will result in hybrid, synchronous, and blended learning modalities.

Moving Forward

In the years that Jackson College has been involved with corrections education, there have been many victories, both small and large. Yet there is still much work to be done, and JC continues to push the proverbial needle forward. The college plans to continue to grow CEP, and to seek out and partner with other institutions of higher education. The program will also continue to leverage technology to create a platform for students to have a full college experience while preparing them to successfully transfer to a four-year school upon release.

Growing the Program

CEP reached its peak number of students (over 750) in the 2020 winter semester. At that point, CEP was adding, on average, 100+ students to the program per semester. Part of this growth was due to statewide recruitment and transfers of students to CEP facilities from across the state. Today, CEP is committed to working with our MDOC partners to publicize the program via JPay email blasts, CCTV commercials, and recruitment flyers.

Baccalaureate Partnerships

Jackson College’s CEP is the leading corrections education provider in the state of Michigan and serves as a resource both statewide and nationally to other institutions of higher education seeking to get involved in this life-transforming work. Currently, CEP is working with Siena Heights University to provide an opportunity for CEP students to earn a bachelor's degree prior to release. JC is having conversations with other universities to establish similar memoranda of understanding.

Leveraging Technology

CEP is actively working with the Vera Institute of Justice as well as other higher education institutions involved in corrections education to successfully employ technology in a manner that is safe for correctional facilities and beneficial to students. This includes deploying laptops to students to be used for researching materials (stored locally on a hard drive), writing papers, completing coursework, and viewing video lectures from their professors. The long-term goal is to create a platform which connects incarcerated students via a secure network to our JetNet learning management system. Technology such as this will prepare CEP students for successful reentry into a society that is driven by technology and equip them with the necessary skills to continue their education after release.

Final Thoughts

The foremost challenge for Jackson College’s CEP was blending a strict, policy-driven, one-time punitive corrections culture with an educational, rehabilitative, life-changing higher education culture. Over the last several years, CEP, along with MDOC and Bureau of Prisons, has created a strong partnership and presented a unified front in ensuring the program’s success. This partnership has resulted in over 1,000 students receiving the opportunity to prepare for successful reentry into society, not to mention the yet determined impact on recidivism, tax dollars saved on reincarceration costs, and most importantly, the abolishment of vicious cycles in whole families through educational transformation. In addition, the Corrections Education Program has had a positive impact on the administration, faculty, and staff at Jackson College as it has on the incarcerated students it serves. Those who work closely with the program have a passion for the success of these students and share in the hope that participants’ lives will be improved upon release as a result CEP involvement.

The Michigan Department of Corrections currently has 39,000 inmates statewide, 97 percent of whom will be eligible for release at some point. Jackson College’s goal is to continue to play a prominent role in providing high-quality education for these individuals to prepare them for successful reintegration into society.

Lead image: Jackson College President Daniel J. Phelan and Michigan Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington with graduating class at Parnall Correctional Facility, May 2018

Bobby Beauchamp is Director, Corrections Education Program, at Jackson College in Jackson, Michigan.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.