A unique group of graduates is getting first crack at a second chance.
On Friday, 25 inmates and parolees received associates of the arts degrees in ceremonies at the Arkansas Department of Correction unit in Wrightsville. The degrees were obtained through the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, a program launched by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015 and designed to reduce rates of recidivism among former inmates.
The federal program, whose Arkansas participants include Shorter College in Little Rock and Arkansas State University-Newport, provides need-based Pell Grants to state and federal prisoners through college partnerships. It reverses the 1994 congressional ban on students in federal and state prisons from being eligible for the federal Pell Grants typically reserved for low-income families.
"It means a lot to me," said David Avington, 37, paroled from Wrightsville after serving 3 ½ years of a 20-year sentence for drug delivery convictions.
"I had a lot of emotions. I never thought, where I came from, I never thought I'd receive a college degree. I always wanted one but I'm blessed to finally receive one. I thank all the staff and everyone who helped me."
Avington received his degree during a ceremony attended by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Avington and his fellow graduates obtained associates degrees in entrepreneurial studies from Shorter. In spring of 2017 an inmate under the Second Chance program completed a certificate in general studies and an associate of the arts in general education from ASU-Newport, which this semester had 37 unduplicated students in the nearby Grimes and McPherson units.
Administrators at the participating schools said the Second Chance program, in cooperation with the Arkansas Department of Correction and Arkansas Community Correction, is in line with their respective missions and educational objectives.
Shorter, a Historically Black College or University founded in 1886, has always worked to provide educational opportunities for "persons who otherwise might not have an opportunity to fulfill their potential," said President O. Jerome Green.
ASU-Newport Dean for Student Success/Registrar Allen Mooneyhan said the school has provided educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals for more than 15 years. ASU-Newport previously used grant funds, and institutional scholarships when the grants became unavailable, to cover the costs of tuition for student-inmates.
"When the opportunity for Second Chance Pell became available, ASUN was thrilled to submit a request to be one of the Second Chance participants," Mooneyhan said. "This pilot program allows us to help even more individuals reach their educational goals."
The Second Chance program provides for faculty members or adjuncts, plus textbooks, who go to the correctional facilities to teach classes, which are primarily held at night.
"I was working for the state of Arkansas doing eight hours a day, coming in and going straight to class," Avington said. "And after class you've got to come study. It was pretty hard at first. I had to motivate myself and push myself and drive myself harder to receive [the degree]. I thank God. That's all I can do is just thank God."
Shorter offers only the associates degree in entrepreneurial studies but is planning to offer computer science, Green said. ASU-Newport offers general studies certificates and associates of the arts degrees in general education.
Skilled Labor Search
Updated numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show an estimated 68 percent of inmates were arrested within the first three years after release. The estimate was 79 percent within six years and 83 percent within nine years. In Arkansas, ex-convicts have a 53 percent chance of re-offending within three years.
Factors affecting recidivism rates include housing, availability of transportation and employment opportunities, something the degree program is designed to combat. Additionally, while the nation is enjoying low unemployment rates, certain industries are struggling to find skilled laborers, something Second Chance graduates could potentially help.
At a recent round table forum with Arkansas Business editors, Arkansas Economic Development Commission Executive Director Mike Preston noted the 23,000 people a year being released from the Arkansas prison system and said the AEDC speaks with employers about possibly hiring non-violent, ex-convicts.
"We want to reduce that recidivism rate. The best thing that we can do is find them a job and they're no longer a drain on the system," Preston said. "This is something that companies before didn't have to think about. When you're down to 3.8 percent unemployment let's maybe rethink that policy.
"So we're trying to get a better understanding on companies that are willing to work with Department of Corrections and folks that are coming out so they can start doing some training of those who are getting ready to come out so maybe they can go into those jobs."
In the era of for-profit prisons, it is encouraging to see programs that focus on rehabilitation while possibly filling an economic need, Green said.
"We believe that that makes economic sense in modern America. Because we believe that America's best resource is its human capital," Green said. "If we're warehousing all these able-bodied people who have good minds and skills and abilities, then we are depriving ourselves of the workforce that we need."
The Second Chance program partners with 67 colleges in 27 states. Green said it will be up to Congress to evaluate the program's worth and success and vote to keep it running past 2020.
But Green noted figures in a 2013 Rand Corporation study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice that showed incarcerated inmates who participate in educational programs were 43 percent less likely to become repeat offenders within three years. For every year of education past high school, Green said, the chance of recidivism goes down 20 percent per year.
"It costs a lot more to hold a person in prison for a year that it does to send a person to college," Green said. ASU-Newport Dean for Applied Science Robert Burgess said the cost of housing an inmate for a year exceeds the cost of educating him by a 10-to-1 ratio.
Avington, who has a 10-year-old son and currently works at an HVAC company in Little Rock, said the entrepreneurial studies degree taught him business skills as well as job skills. Should he find opportunities limited in the future, he has the know-how to begin his own business and said he is considering starting up a pressure washing enterprise someday.
"I'm really not sure," he said of his future, "but I know I'm on a better path now that I received my diploma. I see a brighter future for myself. I don't see myself ever returning back to prison."