They’ll be able to earn four-year degrees!
Mississippi Valley State University has become the first HBCU to offer a college program to incarcerated people in the state, Clarion Ledger reports.
For years, educational programs for incarcerated people were the norm and seen as a viable option to reduce recidivism by lawmakers. In the 1994 crime bill, President Bill Clinton revoked access to the federal Pell Grants that funded college prison programs to promote a “tough on crime” approach, cutting off public funding and shutting down hundreds of prison programs. In 2015, President Barack Obama reinstated a pilot program granting incarcerated people access to Pell Grants and in December 2020, Congress passed a law fully restoring access regardless of a person’s sentence.
Now Mississippi Valley State University has stepped up to take advantage of the funding by launching the Prison Educational Partnership Program (PEPP) to allow incarcerated people at two prisons in the state the ability to earn a four-year degree. In the state of Mississippi, there are seven colleges and nonprofits currently offering college credits for classes and vocational courses inside the prison. However, the introduction of the PEPP makes Mississippi Valley State the first HBCU in the state to offer a program. While the PEPP is open to incarcerated individuals of all races, it should be said that most of those incarcerated in Mississippi are disproportionately Black, University officials looking at the program as an opportunity to connect those in prison to a community that has not forgotten them.
“Many of the people who are incarcerated are parents and relatives of our students. It’s in our best interest to do something like this, because these are the very same people who will come back to our community, said Provost Kathie Stromile Golden.
Associate professor of criminal justice at Mississippi Valley State and the new director of PEPP, Rochelle McGee-Cobbs, began working with faculty and administration to develop the program, making multiple trips to the prisons to enroll students and bring paper applications since there was no access to computers to apply online. So far, the program has accepted nearly 50 incarcerated students for the first semester this fall, classes taking place at Bolivar County Correctional Facility and the Delta Correctional Facility, a prison for those who violated parole. Students will also have access to the University’s counseling and financial aid offices. To date, the Second Chance Pell program is only available to those with a high school degree or GED who will eventually be released.
“Here at Mississippi Valley State University, regardless of where a student is at when they come in, we try to make sure that we nourish them. We try to make sure that we cater to the needs of each student,” said McGee-Cobbs.
The new director picked up transcripts for each of the students and surveyed them about potential majors, Mississippi Valley State launching the program by offering courses in business administration, computer science, and engineering technology. While the university works on logistics for faculty, they have determined that PEPP instructors will receive payment for travel and be trained by Jamii Sisterhood, a nonprofit aimed at increasing the number of Black people teaching in prisons. The training is currently supported by a grant from Project Freedom and will focus on introducing culturally competent approaches to teaching incarcerated students and how to avoid developing a "savior" mindset which can be degrading.
“Teaching inside is not the same as teaching outside,” said Stromile Golden.
Mississippi Department of Corrections commissioner Burl Cain also supports the program, his motivations leaning more towards cutting costs and maintaining order inside the prison. But for Mississippi Valley State, the program is another form of necessary "restorative justice."
“For African Americans, this is part of our legacy, and we are all steeped in the Baptist church code that says ‘forgive, forgive, forgive.’ But for the grace of God, easily any of us could be on the other side of it. From my perspective, it’s the right thing to do. It’s needed. It’s a win-win for our community,” Stromile Golden explained.
Photo Courtesy of Clarion Ledger File Photo