'A Different Kind of Elevation': Behind the Work to Keep Education in Prison

June 14, 2021

Kristen Johnson - The Fayetteville Observer

CLINTON — A typical day for Mahogani Thompkins usually involves stubborn technology and loads of paperwork.

As a case manager at Sampson Correctional Institution, Thompkins wears many hats, but most specifically, she works with more than two dozen incarcerated men currently completing education courses at the facility.

Daily, she is sending completed homework back and forth to professors at local colleges, setting up laptops for class, and helping keep students on track with their work.

"When they learn something new, they're excited about it," Thompkins said. "Some of them, they don't have a lot to be excited about but school gives them something to look forward to. They were eager to learn even during COVID."

Thompkins said that despite the uncertainty and problems the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the prison, she was determined to help men at the facility continue their education without any gaps.

Many of them will be released soon with associate's degrees.

In efforts to reduce recidivism and eliminate the stigma of education in prison, Thompkins is among the many case managers and educational coordinators in the state's prison system working to ensure incarcerated people are better equipped with the skills, tools and credentials needed to re-enter an evolving society.

A partnered effort

Built in the late 1930s, Sampson Correctional Institution, located in Clinton, is one of the oldest prisons in the state.

The facility is occupied by 452 incarcerated men in medium or minimum custody from a range of ages and backgrounds. Education programs at the prison are open to those who have less than eight years left in their sentences.

Sampson Correctional partners with Sampson Community College to extend vocational classes to men in the areas of horticulture, computer application, and laundry service technology. Some formerly incarcerated men who took the classes went on to work in these fields after being released, according to Thompkins.

To get certain courses, she receives recommendations from the men and works with local colleges to get professors to teach in person. Since the pandemic, all courses have been taught online through Blackboard.

"We create flyers for different programs that we may have and that's a lot of work because you have to ensure that the facility can accommodate the program," Thompkins said. She has been working in corrections for eight years. "We ask them to submit requests, some of them write requests to me, some of them write to their case managers. Some of them even have their family members call to inquire about getting in the program."

Both Campbell University and UNC Chapel Hill also offer general higher education courses, and students can earn their associate's degree upon completion.

UNC's program at the facility is a correspondence, or outreach, program, and interested men have to complete an application, writing assessment, and assignments to be accepted.

In this self-paced program, students have the option to choose from 10 different courses with 13 months to complete the course without the use of technology or access to databases for research.

"I couldn't do it," said Raphael Ginsburg, the associate director for correctional education at UNC. "They do the course on their own and they send work to Chapel Hill, to UNC, it's graded by instructors and the graded assignment is sent back to the students in the prisons."

The courses are all transferrable, said Ginsburg, so if a student wishes to continue education at another university, they will have the credits.

"It builds skills and it provides credits, so in very practical ways it (the program) can change people's lives," Ginsburg said. "We really look at empowerment and what it takes to empower one's self, whether in or out of prison. Empowerment is crucial for all of us ... but certainly people in prison are in great need of it. When they're empowered through education, it empowers their families, it empowers their communities, it empowers everyone around them."

In a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation, a policy thinktank, reported that incarcerated people who participate in correctional education programs were 43% less likely to reoffend compared to those who did not. Similar studies have shown that prison education greatly improves the chances for formerly incarcerated people to stay out of prison.

Graduation for the first cohort in the newer program at Campbell is in August. About 15 men will have earned an associate's degree in behavioral science.

Thompkins is proud, she said.

Some of the men already have business plans and want to continue their education in the future.

"All of them made the honor roll, they're making the dean's list, the president's list," she said. "They're excited to send these grades home to their families so they can see. They're very intelligent. Most of them will be released soon and they're working on what they want to do once they're released."

In May, Thompkins was awarded by the state's Department of Public Safety, which houses the prison system, for playing an integral role in the success of the education programs at the Sampson facility.

She became certified to be able to provide tests that would help place the men in either high school or vocational courses, or determine higher education eligibility.

The recognition for her work, she said, was one that came as a surprise.

"It was a shock. Sometimes you don't feel like it makes a difference," Thompkins said. "I've gotten quite a few congratulations from my coworkers here, and even some people I've worked with in the past... it was an honor."

'A different kind of elevation'

One of the professors who was at the start of the Sampson and Campbell partnership in 2019 is Dr. Sherry Truffin, an English professor and honors program director at the University.

Before the pandemic, she would visit the prison once a week for three hours to teach English 100, 101 and 102.

Without the use of technology at the beginning of the program, the students at Sampson would handwrite their work and Truffin would print stacks of copies for them to read.

During the first semester, she said she couldn't bring in the standard textbook for them to read because it was wire bound, which they weren't allowed to have in the facility.

"The students thought that I was killing lots of trees because I would give them big handouts," Truffin said. "I would make copies at school. It was a real challenge to adjust to."

Still, the cohort was able to learn with what they had.

"It's extremely hard to take college classes while incarcerated," she said. "The guys are engaged, they participate, they're prepared. I think part of it for them is the identity of being a student is meaningful to them. Their whole lives are defined by their crime, but for a few hours every day, they are students."

Having no background in criminal justices, this is the first time Truffin has taught in a prison but said she jumped at the opportunity when asked.

"Education is vital to anything that we would call rehabilitation," Truffin said. "I wish every teacher I knew had the opportunity. I've just seen so much development and growth."

One of her students, Truffin said, wants to earn his degree to encourage his daughter to pursue higher education.

In a reflection paper she assigned, another wrote that being in class working toward the degree was a chance to elevate themselves.

"He wrote that he thinks all the guys in the class are guys, he said, with big ideas and big dreams," Truffin said. "He said, being in class made him aware, and these are his words, of a different kind of elevation. He thinks everyone in there, part of the reason they got themselves into trouble was dreaming big, wanting to be more. That's one of my favorite moments."

Students at the Sampson facility are aware that many people don't believe incarcerated people should have access to a college education in prison, Truffin said.

"Even people who do, I think, think that it's easy, you know it's 'well, what else do they have to do?'" Truffin said. "But that's really not at all true. They don't have their books all the time. They work so hard. College is really challenging when you're incarcerated."

'Transforming the institution'

Without the full access to school resources, students at Sampson Correctional use what they have to get work done and rely on their professors and case managers to help provide other resources.

"They were asking me to buy index cards," said Dr. Rick Smith, the adult and online education director at Sampson Correctional for Campbell University. "One of the students, because he didn't have enough, he went ahead and tore up envelopes. I thought to myself that's really awesome, he's really bought into the fact that he really wants to study ... he's done this so much that he said he's been creating the ways he wants to study."

Smith was one of the leaders to implement the program between Sampson and Campbell in the fall of 2019 with the support of leadership and some tenured faculty at the university.

As most of the students prepare for graduation in August, and for release, Smith believes they now have more options for their future.

"I think the students look at this as an opportunity for employment, not only looking for a job once they're released, but a career," Smith said. "That's a mindset change. These students through this program seem to have more hope for finding success once they're released back into society. I think that's really important."

The idea for the partnership between Sampson and Campbell began as a conversation about recidivism, or the tendency for people with convictions to reoffend, according to Smith.

The Bob Barker Company Foundation pushed the efforts, according to John Roberson, the executive vice president at Campbell.

Perspective:NC, Cumberland have funding for proposals that serve at-risk and delinquent youth

The foundation is one of the largest prison suppliers in the United States and coincidentally, also works to reduce recidivism rates throughout the country.

"Bob is one of our trustees and he's very, very interested in reducing recidivism," Roberson said. "He asked if we would consider starting a program within North Carolina and of course, we talked about it, and investigated. We arranged to meet with our friends in Raleigh at the Department of Public Safety and they began to encourage us, telling us that there really wasn't another degree program like we were envisioning within the system."

Roberson said the program was "expensive" and was funded by university resources and benefactors like the Bob Barker, Sunshine Lady Foundation and the Pope Foundation.

"But for the consistency of the program, we really do need the federal government to say that incarcerated individuals can have access to Pell (grant) money," Roberson said. "We just need to make sure Congress stays true to its word and that those dollars are made available and that they're made available equitably."

In 1994, the opportunity for incarcerated people to receive Pell Grants, or federal loan for undergraduates that does not need to be repaid, for higher education was banned under the crime bill.

However, in December, the ban was lifted in the $900 billion stimulus package that was passed by Congress.

The bill will allow people in prison to access higher education but now, some advocates say, the fight is ensuring the correctional facilities have quality college education programs.

The Vera Institute, a non-profit research and policy organization, estimates more than half a million incarcerated people could be eligible for Pell Grants.

Roberson said that he has been pleased with the success of the first cohort at Sampson Correctional but wishes to do more and expand the access to other correctional facilities in the state.

For him, the goal of the program isn't just to help incarcerated people earn a degree.

"One of the goals of prison education is not just to have an opportunity to transform the student, it also provides an opportunity to transform the institution itself," Roberson said. "What the warden has written to us about is the positive influence that they (students) have had on that campus. That is a goal of prison education, to be transformational to the student and to be transformational to the institution."

Regional Enterprise Reporter Kristen Johnson can be reached at kjohnson1@gannett.com or 910-486-3570.

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