College students can have many roles off campus; employee, spouse and parent are common examples, but for 144 RSC students this semester, one of those roles is inmate.
Student Destiny Poplawski, 26, is serving the last part of her 10-year sentence at the Mable Bassett Correctional Facility in McLoud, Okla., and is working on her associate degree through an RSC distance-learning program in which 11 prisons currently participate.
“I never even thought about coming to college, because I got kicked out of high school,” she said. “In here is the only way I would have ever thought about going to college.”
Poplawski is a business management major who dreams of owning her own tattoo shop after serving her sentence. She expects to be released later this month and said she plans to finish her degree.
The RSC program’s recidivism rate—the percentage of inmates that return to prison life after being released—is “only 1 percent,” Academic Outreach director Jan Bugby, said.
Similar inmate education systems, like the one at Bard College in New York, experience a slightly higher recidivism rate of 4 percent. However, both colleges’ programs are lower than the national average of 47 percent, according to a 1994 Bureau of Justice Statistics study, the most current one performed by the government. PEW, a nonprofit think-tank, estimates in a 2011 report that as many as half of former inmates return to prison within three years.
“Ninety-eight percent of all inmates are going to get out,” Bugby said. “I would rather keep them out—where they can be productive.”
Despite the success rates of inmate education programs nationwide, funding began to decrease in 1994 when Congress prohibited prisoners from receiving Pell grants. Last year, the Youthful Offender grant was also eliminated, reducing the number of RSC’s student-inmates by more than half.
From left students Guss Marsh, Ryan Blue and Casen Baker listen to a speech by fellow student Christina Coachman. Coachman attends RSC through a distance-learning program while incarcerated at Mable Bassett Correctional Facility in McLoud, Okla.A 2013 study, by the nonprofit think-tank , estimated that every dollar spent on inmate education equates to $4 or $5 not spent on re-incarceration.A 2013 study, by the nonprofit think-tank RAND, estimated that every dollar spent on inmate education equates to $4 or $5 not spent on re-incarceration.
Citing saving taxpayers money through reduced recidivism rates, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo “announced a new statewide initiative to give incarcerated individuals the opportunity to earn a college degree through funding college classes in prisons across New York,” according to a February 2014 press release.
Opponents of the plan, like Republican Sen. Mark J. Grisanti of New York, have said constituents are voicing their opinions and that “there is significant opposition to utilizing the tax dollars of hardworking New Yorkers in such a manner."
Inmates currently pay for education expenses, such as tuition and books, in a variety of ways: prison-funded scholarships, church donations, and family contributions. Some inmates are in work-release programs and pay for classes with their earnings.
Bugby said she is a firm believer in RSC’s prisoner education system and has spoken at parole hearings, attended graduation ceremonies, and witnessed multiple success stories. Some of her former inmates are now engineers and MBA students.
“I think it gives them a sense of accomplishment that they didn’t have,” she said. “They really work hard.
RSC students at correctional facilities take classes online, and seven of the facilities offer telecourses. Similar to a Skype call, monitors and cameras with microphones allow instructors and classmates to interact with the student inmates in real time.
Grants from corporations and donations from nonprofit organizations, along with money from the college’s annual budget, make the program possible.
“I’ve always been so thrilled that Rose has been supportive of it,” Bugby said. “The professors here are wonderful, and all of our deans have gone over and beyond for this program. They are really awesome.”
As one of the distance learning instructors, Professor Londa Martin works closely with Bugby and instructs Poplawski’s telecourse speech class.
Martin agrees that the program works and has witnessed the drastic improvement of inmates’ lives because they received an education.
“I think it speaks a great deal to prison reform,” she said.
Jordan Perdasofpy, 23, is another incarcerated student in Martin’s speech class, serving an eight-year sentence at Mable Bassett.
Perdasofpy said she wants to be a paralegal after her December 2015 release. She believes her experiences within the judicial system will be a valuable asset to her future clients.
“I have plenty of knowledge of the legal system,” she said. “It’s like going to a counselor. You want a counselor that has been through the same things you’ve been through.”
Perdasofpy already holds an associate degree in business administration but is currently working on a second associate in social sciences and a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a minor in legal studies. She is 40 credit hours away from her bachelor’s and plans to have all her degrees finished by the time she is released.
“I’m going to get as many (degrees) as I can,” she said. “Education is powerful.”