Arkansas Program Focuses On Higher Education for Prisoners

Arkansas Program Focuses On Higher Education for Prisoners

Currently, around 86% of people who are incarcerated lack postsecondary education. Programs focused on expanding educational opportunities for those in prison are designed to help reduce recidivism and increase employment post-release.

The U.S. Department of Education has approved a limited number of higher education institutions throughout the United States to participate in the Second Chance Pell Experimental Site Initiative (ESI) to assess new models to allow incarcerated Americans to receive Pell grants and pursue a postsecondary education.

Those who participate in taking college classes while in prison generally see increased job opportunities and earnings, as well as increased intergenerational educational achievement. College is a primary avenue for upward mobility—especially among people of color, who disproportionately make up the prison population. Therefore, postsecondary programs during or after prison provide people with knowledge, skills, and connections they can share with their children and families, multiplying the impact of a single college degree.

In Arkansas, Michael Leach, Education Director for Restore Hope, leads a Second Chance Pell ESI program through Southeast Arkansas College at the Cummins, Delta, and Varner units. The program started with 30 students in Fall 2022 and now enrolls over 100 students. The students are earning an Associate of General Studies degree, which will provide 60 credit hours that transfer toward a Bachelor’s Degree at any college in Arkansas or elsewhere. The first cohort of students will have over 30 credit hours after this spring, and all students have a combined GPA of 3.3.

For students who have not yet completed a degree when they leave prison, the program provides assistance with enrolling in and transferring credits to postsecondary institutions, including assistance in filing college admissions applications, financial aid forms, and links to post-release student support services on campus, such as tutoring and scholarship information.

Leach actively works with the four other Second Chance Pell ESI colleges in Arkansas through a newly-established consortium, the Arkansas Higher Ed in Prison Consortium. The consortium collaborates to improve program quality and student outcomes and helps other colleges start programs, further expanding the reach and effectiveness of Arkansas’s prison education efforts.

Under a new Bureau of Justice Assistance grant, the Southeast Arkansas College program will soon provide comprehensive re-entry planning and wrap-around support for students reentering society after incarceration and continued support for education post-release. Restore Hope and its 100 Families initiative will be a key partner in providing this support system.

Stressors related to transitioning from life in confinement to life in the community complicate academic preparedness, financial challenges, and developing meaningful social support. By addressing the holistic needs of formerly incarcerated individuals, including housing, employment, and mental health support, a comprehensive support system can be created that facilitates successful reintegration.

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

The podcast is available on all major podcasting platforms.

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