Jack Thurston

University of Vermont to Offer College Courses to Prison Inmates

The University says offering opportunities for higher education to prison inmates could benefit society as a whole

The University of Vermont and the Vermont Department of Corrections are teaming up to offer official introductory-level college courses to select prison inmates.

Limited course offerings are expected to start in the spring semester of 2018 at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, which houses female offenders.

“If we can engage with them in a way that communicates to them that they have something worthwhile that they could contribute, I think that's all to the good,” said Kathy Fox, a sociology professor at the University of Vermont who helped spearhead the program. “That's to society's benefit. I think there's ample evidence that education increases public safety.”

Fox said the rate at which released inmates return to prison following a first conviction drops as education levels increase.

The University of Vermont said the overall recidivism rate for the state is roughly 45 percent, but that number drops to 24 percent for citizens released with a high school education, 10 percent for those with two years of college, and about 5 percent with four years of college.

Reducing the rate at which people return to prison would save the state money, UVM argued, because it costs approximately $65,000 a year to house each inmate in the state.

The school just joined a small consortium of colleges and universities in other states offering liberal arts experiences to incarcerated people with high school diplomas who are ready for more learning.

According to UVM, the other schools in the Consortium of the Liberal Arts in Prison are Goucher College, Grinnell College, Wesleyan University, Yale University, and Bard College, where it originated.

“When they gave us our first homework assignment, it was, ‘write two pages,’ and I was like, ‘I can't write two pages,’ then I did it,” beamed Bryeanna Sheldon, 24, who is currently incarcerated in the South Burlington facility.

Sheldon has nearly completed eight months in prison for nonviolent drug convictions, and works — under supervision — in the community as part of a prison labor crew.

Sheldon just took a two-month pilot sociology course behind bars that Kathy Fox’s traditional UVM students also attended.

Sheldon said the experience of being a part of the college course boosted her self-esteem and left her excited to pursue more classes elsewhere when she re-enters society.

“Showing myself I can do it, hearing the positive feedback from the teachers and the students — it really made me realize that I can be a college student,” Sheldon told necn. “Even though I have made mistakes, it still gives me hope.”

UVM said the liberal arts are valuable to providing students with experiences in critical and comparative thinking , as well as strong communication, writing, and problem-solving skills. Those traits are beneficial to people from many walks of life, the school said.

Taxpayers will not be funding these college courses for inmates because the state appropriation to UVM will not be tapped for the program, the university and corrections officials pointed out.

Instead, the school is now working to raise money from private foundations for tuition assistance. The foundations UVM is approaching specialize in criminal and social justice efforts or innovative approaches to education, the university said.

The Vermont Department of Corrections acknowledged the college-level courses certainly won't be appropriate for everyone in the prison population.

High school classes and vocational training are available for many more incarcerated people in Vermont, corrections officials said, noting that the corrections department’s Community High School of Vermont is well-regarded on a national scale.

“When people leave our custody, we want them to be proactive, productive, law-abiding citizens,” said Kim Bushey of the Vermont Department of Corrections. “And education can help.”

The Vermont Department of Corrections and the University of Vermont are now working to figure out if the upcoming college coursework program would also be a good fit at the men's correctional facility in St. Albans, Bushey said.

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