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The turning point

Date: Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Sixty credits. That’s the maximum number of college credit hours an inmate can take while at the Newton Correctional Facility. For former inmates Matt Stickley and Chad Shearon, 60 wasn’t just a number or a goal: It was an opportunity to change their lives.

Through a partnership with Grinnell College, accredited and non-accredited courses were offered to Stickley and Shearon while serving their sentences, and both men individually took a wide variety of classes ranging from humanities to music theory to sociology.

“I decided to use my time the best I could and make something of myself,” said Shearon, who pursued studies in neuroscience. “This was an opportunity for me to fulfill my education. The classes gave me hope that there is a future, that I could complete my degree and do something better with my life.

“It was a godsend that this opportunity was presented to me.”

Educational opportunities within Iowa’s correctional institutions are important not only for individual transformation but also for Iowa as a whole. They can help strengthen the state’s workforce as well as local communities where former inmates will integrate once they are released.

“We need to do a better job of training people from both an employment and public safety perspective,” said Jennie Doke-Kerns, chairperson of the Iowa Consortium of Higher Education in Prison. “If they have a job that they’ve trained for and can walk into, they are less likely to re-offend. It’s the right thing to do.”

Stickley, who worked toward a degree in information technology, found that education was highly important for his success in integrating back into society.

“I think one of the biggest things was re-entering society and knowing I was going to be able to get a job and pursue a degree where I can improve my standing in life,” he said. “I think there’s a misconception that felons will continue on the same path. Education is the most important tool to get people off of that path and break that cycle.”

Both Stickley, who was released in 2020 and went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from Drake University in May 2021, and Shearon, who was released in 2018 and is forecasted to complete his degree in 2022, have used their education experiences as a way to catapult to employment success. Stickley now works as a staff accountant for a plastics manufacturer, and Shearon is currently working to open three central Iowa nutrition clubs.

Although both men would recommend taking college courses to any current inmate, they also note that barriers still exist for students within the corrections system. For instance, both mentioned that due to safety concerns and correction institution rules, it can be difficult to access computers and the internet to write and research reports and assignments. Many students also have issues completing financial aid paperwork, navigating past defaulted loans or understanding how to transfer their credits.

Similarly, incarcerated students who are interested in career and technical education (CTE) programs are often denied enrollment because of the higher security risks when accessing tools and equipment for hands-on learning. Access to CTE programs and other non-credit courses are also more difficult to obtain because of limited class sizes and funding opportunities available for students in prison.

“Bridging the gaps are important, especially transitioning from inside of the facility to outside and how to move forward,” Stickley said.

To address these noted gaps, the Iowa Consortium of Higher Education in Prison has brought together educational institutions and the Iowa Department of Corrections to strengthen partnerships and find ways to better support students who are incarcerated.

“The best way we are going to affect policy at the state level and to remove those barriers is to come together to find solutions,” Doke-Kerns said. “This group brings together the Iowa Department of Corrections, Board of Regents, Iowa Department of Education and seven community colleges and universities to suggest policies and stay informed.” 

The consortium will work on five main issues: technology and security, funding and partnerships, student services and supports while incarcerated and, after re-entry, professional development and data measurement.

In addition, Iowa was one of three states recently awarded an Optimizing Delivery Systems for Higher Education in Prison grant through Ascendium, an organization that supports research, colleges, workforce training providers and large-scale initiatives. The Iowa Department of Education will receive $1.1 million over three years to help create a state process for incorporating postsecondary courses in prison settings. One of the biggest initiatives of the grant is to partner with the consortium and the Iowa Department of Corrections to establish pathway navigators for incarcerated students. At least three pathway navigators will be hired to assist with the coordination of academic and community services for individuals while they are incarcerated and after they are released from prison.

“The pathway navigators will help pave the way for students to access services while incarcerated and after re-entry into the community,” said Alex Harris, administrative consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “Ninety percent of incarcerated individuals are being released back into the community and the workforce. So, it makes so much sense to ensure that they have the support and care coordination they need to be successful.”

Navigators will be responsible for coordinating potential opportunities in CTE programs, high school equivalency classes and pathways to associate and bachelor degrees. Students will also receive support for setting up funding, navigating processes and completing paperwork, which will be helpful as federal Pell grants are slated to open to all students, including those who are incarcerated, in 2023.

Corrections education is seen as a team effort and is one that will require a lot of coordination, but it is something that is worthwhile.

“The instructors that are going into facilities have a passion to make a difference,” Harris said. “The individuals they serve are often the first to get their college degree or even earn college credit. This makes generational changes that can influence their children, family and community. The ripple effect of their work inside prison walls truly has a long-lasting result.”

Ultimately, the work of the consortium and the initiatives of the grant aim to make college courses within the prison system more congruent to what is offered on main college campuses. As a result, they hope that education can be a turning point for the individuals affected and for Iowa’s workforce.

“There are bright minds in prison,” Harris said. “And education can be a pivotal moment in their lives.”