Dyersburg State Continues To Fight Recidivism By Offering College Courses To Incarcerated Students
DYERSBURG – Dyersburg State Community College (DSCC) is leading the way toward education in prisons with new classes beginning this fall and winter. The college is gearing up to begin a third cohort consisting of 25 incarcerated students at the Northwest Correctional Complex (NWCX) in January 2021. It also plans to begin a brand-new cohort of 50 students at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary (WTSP) and Women’s Therapeutic Residential Center (WTRC) with a Bridge program in November 2020.
“Both of these initiatives will provide incarcerated students with the opportunity to take classes leading to a degree or certificate,” stated Dr. Karen Bowyer, President of DSCC. “Once they serve their sentence and are released, they can choose to continue their education if they did not finish it while incarcerated. Obtaining a postsecondary education and contributing to the workforce will dramatically reduce their chance of becoming a repeat offender.”
The partnership at the NWCX began in 2017 when DSCC was given the opportunity to offer courses leading to an associate degree in business administration to students. This was made possible through the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI), a Nashville-based nonprofit organization that works with the Tennessee Department of Correction and local community colleges and universities to bring on-site postsecondary opportunities to incarcerated students. Since then, DSCC faculty has taught two cohorts of students, with the third one beginning next spring semester.
“I enjoy teaching students at the prison,” stated Bobby Solmon, Associate Professor of Math at DSCC. “The students are hard-working and they appreciate us bringing classes to them. Students taking the math classes scored on average a letter grade higher than our non-incarcerated students.”
Mike Bowen, Associate Professor of Economics at DSCC, has been teaching at the NWCX the past two semesters. His class consists of a cohort of 12 incarcerated students who took macroeconomics last fall and microeconomics this spring. Bowen describes them as being excellent, sharp students who are self-disciplined and possess exceptional critical thinking skills. “My students have been very successful in their classes so far,” stated Bowen. “I have no doubt they will have a lot to offer society when they are able to return.”
In July 2020, the U.S. Department of Education announced that DSCC was included in the expansion of the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative to provide need-based Pell grants to people in state and federal prisons. Initially launched in 2015, the initiative expands access to postsecondary education in prison to help reduce recidivism and strengthen communities nationwide. Pell has not been available to incarcerated students since 1994 when their eligibility ceased with the establishment of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. DSCC’s program at NWCX had previously graduated 50 incarcerated students who were able to use Pell funding in the 1980s and early 1990s before the federal act was put in place.
The cohort at the WTSP/WTRC was established thanks to Governor Lee’s Correctional Education Initiative (CEI), in which DSCC was awarded a five-term $918,750 grant to provide college courses leading to an associate degree in business administration. An Office Specialist Certificate will also be offered at the WTRC. The CEI grant will allow these students to participate in a Bridge Program this fall to help them brush up on their basic skills to prepare them for college-level courses.
“Access to postsecondary education in prison improves safety in prisons and creates opportunity - both for incarcerated people and the communities to which they will one day return,” stated Commissioner Tony Parker, Tennessee Department of Correction, and 1993 DSCC alumnus.
According to the Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative (THEI), it costs $27,000 per year to incarcerate a prisoner, yet only $1,000-$1,600 per year to educate them. By providing postsecondary education to these students, DSCC hopes to provide them with a credential or the motivation to continue their education once they are released and ultimately decrease the rate of recidivism. As it stands now, over 95% of those in Tennessee prisons will leave, and nearly 50% will return within three years.