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Prison Education Programs are Primed to Take off in Mississippi

By Molly Minta

Mississippi Today

In the back of the Alcorn County Correctional Facility, a regional prison in the top-right corner of Mississippi, is an ice-cold trailer.

Bill Stone, a retired NEMCC speech instructor, lectures the prison class about the role of anxiety in public speaking. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

It’s new. And it’s where Bill Stone — a retired Northeast Mississippi Community College instructor who, for the past three years, has taught a public speaking class at this prison — was headed early Wednesday afternoon. 

To get there, he must go through a pat-down. A guard inspects his materials — folders, notebooks and seven copies of the textbook “Practically Speaking.” Then Stone must walk through the prison’s long, loud hallway, past his old classroom; past the canteen, the case managers’ offices and the guard; and past the living pods. Some of his students come to the glass or they shout hello, adding to the din. Finally, after a few steps on a sidewalk walled-off with a chain-link fence, Stone is inside the trailer. 

Sometimes, Stone thinks it’s not unlike walking the halls of a high school.  

On Wednesday, he had Michelle Baragona, NEMCC’s vice president of instruction, in tow. She’d driven 20 minutes from NEMCC’s main campus in Booneville. Since fall 2017,she has overseen NEMCC’s prison education programs, which are part of a growing movement in Mississippi and across the country. Boosted in part by research that has shown that prison education reduces recidivism, more colleges and universities are offering classes in prison. 

Now, as the federal government is preparing to make federal financial aid once again available to incarcerated people starting July 1, these programs are primed to explode in partnership with the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Key stakeholders are on board: In interviews, Burl Cain, the MDOC commissioner, has correctly linked the availability of jobs for formerly incarcerated people, which prison education can help them get, to reduced recidivism.

In the quiet, air-conditioned trailer, Stone was hoping his students could, just for an hour, find some reprieve from prison. Or at least, from their often sweltering hot living pods, which on Wednesday were burning up in the 84-degree heat. All 295 students at this facility can take classes, as long as they have a GED. 

“This is much better than the old room,” Stone said. “By a long, long shot.” 

He started arranging the desks into three rows. 

Around 12:20 p.m., guards brought the students from each living zone until all the desks were filled. They waited quietly for class to start. Some were antsy, tapping their feet or twirling their pencils. One student from the work zone was running behind. 

Five minutes later, class started. Stone introduced the assignment. Each student was to talk about three things that interested them. If they talked for more than one minute, they’d get an A. 

“At the end, we all clap for them,” he told the class. “Even if they pass out.” 

Stone was confident they wouldn’t, but in his 28 years of teaching public speaking, it had happened to two students — it’s always a possibility. So he’d tapped one student to start them off. 

“Terrence, I asked you to go first,” Stone said. “Are you ready?” 

“Ready as I’m gonna be,” he replied. 

Carlos White, left, watches as a fellow student gives his speech. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

There used to be hundreds of college classes just like Stone’s in prisons across the country. Up until the mid-1990s, these programs were considered a key part of doing time — an “opportunity for ‘reformation,’” according to Higher Education in Prison Research. But in 1994, the Crime Bill took away the primary source of funding, which was the Pell Grant, a federal financial aid program for low-income students, by barring incarcerated people from receiving it. 

The classes all but disappeared. Now, they’re making a comeback. In Mississippi, colleges and universities across the state are working with MDOC, sheriffs and wardens to set up what are, for many prisons, the first accredited college classes that have been offered in decades. NEMCC had been supporting its programs with private funding, but the Pell Grant will be a game-changer.

This will benefit the whole community, Baragona said. Not only does prison education reduce crime, she said, but families of incarcerated people often move to Alcorn County. They want their loved ones to be able to support the family when they get out. 

“We’re not teaching the people who are in there for life,” Baragona said. “These are people who are fixin’ to rejoin society.” 

Since 2017, 77 students have taken NEMCC classes at Alcorn County Correctional. The participation rates reflect the institutions’ demographics, Baragona said. Black students made up 57% of participants, and 43% were white — a ratio that was mirrored in Stone’s class, where 7 students were Black and 4 were white. 

More than half have taken three or more classes. Two students have taken five classes. 

“I don’t want anybody thinking that this is a patsy,” Stone said. “I want these students to write as well, to speak as well as any Northeast student who has come through my traditional classes.” 

He poised his finger over the iPad timer as Terrence Glover stepped up to the podium. 

“Hello Terrence,” the students said in unison. 

Glover talked about how he hates foreign languages (difficult to learn) and loves fishing. Then, 138 seconds later, his speech was over. It was time for the next student. Stone asked for a volunteer. No one moved. 

“Anybody that just wants to get it over with right now?” Stone asked. 

Carlos White rocked out of his chair. Though he had seemed shy at his desk, he was at ease at the podium. The first thing he was interested in, White said, was TikTok, because it offered access to “a multitude of people from a single device” — that is, to the outside world. He also liked cooking, because it reminded him of his grandmother’s collard greens. His final interest was mentoring. That’s what he wants to do when he gets out. 

“So much of the youth go down the wrong road like I did,” he said. 

White spoke for 139 seconds, Stone noted. A new record. 

The students seemed less anxious and more comfortable sharing. For many, the topic of prison was unavoidable. Another, Vincent Breazeale, talked about the value of education, working and family — three interests, he said, that would “probably be different outside these walls.” 

What everyone was really talking about were their dreams, and what they hoped to do when they finally left.One said he’d like to get a dog. Another couldn’t wait to work on cars again. A third student said wanted to start a business manufacturing cologne. 

One of the last students to go, Antonio Harris, said that after 19 years of incarceration, he was looking forward to being an entrepreneur when he’s finally released (he’ll become eligible next year). 

“I want to be able to work and still kind of like, enjoy life at the same time,” Harris said. “It generates great revenue also.” 

By the end, the temperature in the class felt warmer. Stone congratulated the students. This was the first class he’s ever had, he said, where every student talked for more than a minute. He wanted to know how it felt. 

“Like riding a bike,” Glover said.

A student named Bruce Parker passed out root-beer-float-flavored candies. He’d used $1.16 of his $20-a-week allowance to pay for a bag. 

After a lecture from Stone, it was time for the students to talk to the “navigator.” That is Tina Wilburn. It’s her third day. She’s NEMCC’s eyes and ears in the prison, and it’s her job to advocate for the students. Gripping a prison-issued walkie-talkie and a notebook, she wanted to know how they were going to do their homework. 

“Are you able to study in the pod where you’re at?” she asked. She’d heard the library was too small. 

All the students shook their heads. Dozens of incarcerated people live in each pod and sleep bunk-to-bunk. There are a lot of distractions. 

NEMCC has offered college prison classes at ACCF since fall 2017. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

“It’s extremely difficult,” White said. 

Despite everyone’s excitement that day, these students are up against tough odds. They’re unlikely to finish. Last semester, 10 students enrolled, and only two graduated. According to data from NEMCC, the completion rates were higher before COVID, when more career-readiness classes were offered. 

Some of the reasons for this have to do with the very nature of prisons, said Ruth Delaney, a program director at the Vera Institute of Justice, a national organization that has been helping prisons set up college classes. For instance, it’s common for incarcerated people to be suddenly transferred for reasons that supersede the class, like a sentencing order that prohibits them from staying in the same prison as a co-defendant. 

“A prison is a total institution,” Delaney said. “The minute you cross that threshold, all of your relationships start to feel different.” 

If a fight broke out in a students’ living pod, they could be transferred, even if they weren’t participating, she added. That’s more likely to happen during the summer months, when violence in prison rises with the temperature outside.  And while some research has shown prisons that have classes become safer over time, the students at Alcorn County Correctional said they had yet to see that happen. 

But other reasons can be managed. A huge issue Stone has noticed is dental hygiene. When his incarcerated students’ have cavities, they’re sent to the Mississippi State Prison in Parchman to get their teeth pulled. For weeks after, their mouths are too swollen for them to talk in class. 

Then there are some students who get demoralized if they do poorly, even on a quiz that doesn’t matter for their final grade. 

“It’ll just knock them for a loop, and I’m not used to that,” Stone said. “That’s a definite prison-type thing. A regular college student would go, ‘well, crap.’ They’d just keep on going. For a prison student to make a 40 or a 50, their whole self-esteem is locked up in that.” 

What makes the difference, Stone added, is support.

All of the students told Wilburn they would be able to finish their homework. Some of them offered tips: The best time to study is around 3 a.m. That’s when the prison is quietest. 

The door to the trailer opened. It was a guard. He walked into the middle of the room with his hands on his hips. Everybody turned to look at him. 

“I believe they said class is over now,” he said. 

So it was. 

A student goes back into the prison after class. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

NEMCC has big dreams for the program. Baragona wants to offer more career-technical programs — classes that are more likely to directly lead to jobs when students are no longer incarcerated. But she’s worried about the logistics of bringing equipment into the prison. 

Another issue is giving students computers, which is crucial for learning how to do research. This isn’t possible because they’re not allowed free use of the internet. Stone makes up for that by bringing print-outs of research to class. 

Baragona also wants there to be more instructors. Right now, Stone is one of two. Even though society is slowly leaving the tough-on-crime era behind, she still has to “sweet talk” instructors into participating in the program. She was able to convince Stone because, in the early 1980s, he used to minister to a congregant in prison. 

And Baragona still hasn’t figured out an efficient way of providing accommodations for students who have disabilities like dyslexia. When the Pell Grant becomes available, she’ll need to set up a system for them to talk to NEMCC’s financial aid office. She’s hoping Wilburn can help with that. 

Before class, Baragona asked Stone to tell her if he needed more equipment. A white board would be nice, he mused. Then he thought of something even better. 

“A bigger TV would be glorious,” he said. “If someone had an extra 69-inch TV that would be just glorious.” 

But right now, the new trailer is enough.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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