Pamlico Prisoners On Track To Receive Associate's Degree Behind Bars

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Fifty seven incarcerated students at Pamlico Correctional Institution were recognized on Thursday for their commitment to the first year of an associate’s degree program that could eventually expand throughout the state’s prisons.

“I think that this is a prototype that can be copied and that it will work anywhere where you have the same amount of input from the community,” said State Senator Norman Sanderson, during a ceremony celebrating the pilot prison education program’s first year.

Prisoners enrolled in Pamlico Community College's two-year human services technology degree program attended a ceremony celebrating the program's first year at the prison on Thursday.
Credit Ben Casey / The Pamlico News

As part of a partnership between the prison and Pamlico Community College, incarcerated students enrolled in the program graduate with an associate’s degree in human services technology before they’re released back into the community. This is the first two-year degree program ever offered at the prison, which has provided other educational programs for 20 years.

Associate's degree programs have been administered before in the state's prisons, but this program is different because it integrates life skills, such as anger management, conflict resolution and good parenting, into the curriculum.

“This is something that we want to affect your children, and your children’s children and their children,” Sanderson said, speaking to the incarcerated students. 

Sanderson, whose district includes Pamlico County, was the chief legislative proponent for securing $1.3 million in the state budget to fund the two-year pilot program. In his speech at the ceremony, he told prisoners, many of whom are now entering their first semester of the program, that state lawmakers would likely continue to fund it again as a pilot program in the next legislative session.  

“Then, I think we’re ready to take it across the state to those correctional institutions that have working relationships already with their community colleges,” Sanderson said. “We can initiate this and turn this from sixty to seventy students to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of students.”  

Within two years, almost half of the state’s prisoners released in 2015 were arrested and almost a third of them were incarcerated again, a study from the state’s Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission shows.  By equipping prisoners with an associate’s degree, vocational training and life skills, the pilot program seeks to reduce the chances they’ll reoffend.

“This is about helping human beings," said Jim Ross, president of Pamlico Community College, speaking at the ceremony. "That has been our goal from the first moment -- help human beings here in prison to have a fresh start in life and to be successful.” 

Jim Ross, Pamlico Community College president, shakes hands with Faye Daniels, superintendent at Pamlico Correctional Institution. The new associate's degree program will be named after Daniels, who says she's retiring at the end of August.
Credit Ben Casey / The Pamlico News

The college's request for state funding for the program cited a study on prison education programs in Ohio that showed obtaining a post-secondary degree in prison reduced the risk of recidivism by 62 percent. 

Instructors from the community college travel to the prison to teach the degree’s course curriculum, which includes general education classes like writing and math, along with core subject courses that include counseling, general psychology and crisis intervention. After completing 67 credit hours, the prisoners graduate with the human services technology degree. 

In the program's first year, 85 percent of students passed their courses and the class GPA was a 3.0. Those numbers are higher than the college expected, according to a report on the program's first year. A survey conducted by the college showed 94 percent of prisoners in the program say they found it valuable and 75 percent say they think it will make them less likely to commit a crime after they're released. 

"We heard from some of the most direct individuals in the whole world that this was changing their lives in ways that none of us had anticipated," Ross said. "It is working so well. I believe we do have a state and national model to be replicated." 

In addition to receiving an associate's degree, prisoners in the program can receive certification from the college in a variety of trades, including carpentry, business administration, horticulture and plumbing.  After the program’s incarcerated students are released, a business liaison will help match them with a job, Ross said.  

“When he or she learns that a construction company, for example, has openings for carpenters, that person will say, ‘You know what, I know 12 outstanding students coming out of Pamlico Correctional Institution who would be great for you to interview,’” Ross said.  “That is the vision that we have going forward.

Even when people with felony records have an education and workforce training, many employers refuse to hire them, creating an obstacle for newly released prisoners seeking jobs, said Michelle Willis, the college’s vice president of instruction.  “They shouldn’t be held accountable for the rest of their life because they made one mistake,” she said.  “Society has to start thinking a different way.”

Willis says the college employs a felon to help newly released prisoners find jobs and support services in the community.   “We would be hypocrites if we wouldn’t be willing to hire an ex-offender when we’re in a prison educating them,” Willis said. “People see that he’s successful, he has a business and he’s a liaison here. And so, he’s changing people’s minds.”  

Larry Burgess, a prisoner at Pamlico Correctional Institution, was among three other students who spoke at the ceremony.
Credit Ben Casey / The Pamlico News

Larry Burgess, who’s been incarcerated at Pamlico Correctional Institution for nine years, is part of the program’s first class of students. In the 25 years he’s spent behind bars for murder, he’s received three associate’s degrees, which he said he completed at two other state prisons.  Burgess says the human services technology degree program is different because it teaches students self-improvement and how to help others.

“It’s humans helping humans. It’s something you can use in your everyday life. You can utilize it within your own family,” he said.

Completing an associate’s degree while incarcerated prepares prisoners to make better choices because the program requires perseverance and self-discipline, Burgess said. 

“You start making the conscious decisions to stay out of trouble,” he said. “If you can be in prison, go to school and acquire an associate’s degree, you can do anything outside these bars and gates.”