Inmates finish college courses for the first time since the '90s
Tara Timberman, an advocate for prisoners, was scouring the country’s Higher Education Act, and came across a pleasant surprise.
The law bars federal and state inmates from receiving Pell Grants, a major form of federal financial aid. But it doesn’t restrict county inmates from getting aid — in other words, Philly inmates are eligible.
“I was reading it, and not really believing it,” she says.
Timberman (pictured, center) says this law, which is reauthorized by Congress every few years, led to about 500 college-for-inmates programs getting cut “almost overnight" in the 1990s.
Timberman, who teaches English at the Community College of Philadelphia, took this information about financial aid to the Philadelphia Prisons System. According to prisons spokesman Robert Eskind, the city's prisons hadn’t offered college-credit courses to inmates since the ‘90s, at least — until this year, that is.
Thanks in no small part to Timberman’s discovery, a group of 15 inmates at North Philly’s Cambria Community Center celebrated the completion of their first college semester on Friday. (Two other men, who were released before the semester ended, couldn’t attend, but also finished the classes.)
In the 10-week semester, the inmates took courses in reading, writing and acting, which were taught by professors at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP). They read Homer's The Iliad, wrote essays and memorized lengthy monologues.
The inmates were selected from a pool of about 200 inmates at Cambria, based on the duration of their stay, their eligibility for financial aid, and other factors.
Everett Gillison, the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, says that this program represents a departure from the justice system’s traditional “lock ‘em up and throw people away” strategy.
Louis Giorla, the prisons commissioner, says the classes faced opposition at first. At city meetings, he says, attendants would ask, “Why should inmates go to college when my kid can’t go?”
The city’s prison system has offered educational opportunities before, such as the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, but this is the first time that inmates received college credits during them since at least the ‘90s. Timberman says this is especially beneficial to inmates because upon release, they don’t need to take any additional application steps to further their educations — they’re already CCP students, with financial aid and all.
City officials hope that this program will hope lower rates of recidivism among participants.
At the ceremony on Friday, many people teared up, including CCP professor Kathleen Murphey.
She says that, on average, her incarcerated students performed better than other students. For instance, in her remedial English course of 20 students at the campus, 14 took the final exam — and only six passed. But in her class with inmates, 17 took the final exam — and 14 passed.
George Mink, a 40-year-old with several tattoos, was among the inmates celebrating on Friday. He says he “never, ever pictured going to college,” and had been out of school for 20 years. He adds that the classes helped kill "all the dead time" in jail.
Now, Mink plans on majoring in behavioral health at CCP upon his release this month. “I realized a lot of the guys in here need behavioral help,” he says.
Timberman says there will be a new class of incarcerated students in the fall, and hopes to expand it even further in the future.