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More Kansans in state prisons enrolled in college classes this fall with federal help

The state received the highest number of Second Chance Pell awards in the country

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Staff in corrections facilities have also found that providing education and training leads to fewer rule violations and better behavior among residents.

AP Photo/Thomas Cain

By Megan Stringer
The Wichita Eagle

TOPEKA, Kan. — Classrooms at the Kansas Department of Corrections adult facilities are filled with 325 residents enrolled in college and career courses — an increase of 129 students from last year, according to the state.

The state corrections department attributed the increase in enrollment partly to Second Chance Pell grants, which allow people involved in the criminal justice system to access federal, need-based financial aid that had previously been unavailable to them. Gov. Laura Kelly announced last fall that seven colleges in Kansas would receive $2.2 million in Pell grant funding for people who have experienced incarceration.

The classes include career technical education programs as well as those that help residents obtain associate and four-year degrees.

“Of the 325 residents in (Kansas Department of Corrections) classrooms this fall, 240 are funded through Pell,” Cris Fanning, corrections department education director, said in a statement. “By leveraging KDOC funds with Pell and other federal funds, KDOC plans to significantly increase market relevant job certifications for returning citizens.”

Kansas received the highest number of Second Chance Pell awards in the country, according to the state corrections department. The funding comes through the U.S. Department of Education. Overall, the federal agency selected 67 colleges from 180 applications.

An additional four colleges in Kansas plan to apply early next year for the grant status.

In July 2023, the U.S. will lift a ban on Pell grants for people who have experienced incarceration. Kansas expects more residents of corrections facilities will then have the opportunity to enroll in classes. Congress enacted the ban in 1994 under the Violent Crimes Control and Law Enforcement Act.

Welding, sustainable and renewable energy, carpentry and electrical skills are all included in the career technical education programs. Available degree programs include associate of applied science, associate of arts in liberal studies and Bachelor of Science in computer information systems.

The state can add more programs and degrees as funding and space allow. Degrees and certifications are intended to still be geared toward jobs and industries in high demand.

Professors from Kansas colleges teach the classes in correctional facilities. A partnership of state officials work together to ensure that programs in prisons have the same quality as those on a traditional campus.

Another 134 corrections residents are enrolled in General Educational Development courses to obtain a Kansas high school diploma. The state also offers special education and Title I services, which offer funds to local schools that have high numbers of children from low-income families.

Many local, state and federal programs in past decades have worked to offer financial assistance for education to those who otherwise can’t afford it. Academic experts and officials generally believe that access to education is linked to workforce development and opportunity for economic mobility.

The state cited one study that found for every $1 a state spends on education for someone who is incarcerated, taxpayers as a whole save between $4 and $5 in three-year incarceration costs.

About 75% of people who enter prison have limited employment and education, research from the Kansas Department of Corrections shows. About 50% of people who experience re-incarceration were unemployed when they reentered their community.

Kansas as a whole also increasingly needs a talented workforce.

If people can leave prison and return home ready to enter the workforce because of education and training they received while incarcerated, then local employers will see the benefit through a larger pool of job candidates, the state contends. That ultimately benefits local and state economies. The state corrections department said it releases about 6,000 people from its facilities each year.

Staff in corrections facilities have also found that providing education and training leads to fewer rule violations and better behavior among residents. The opportunities can promote improved mental and physical health as well.

“There is a direct link to education, achievement and success after an individual fulfills their sentence and returns to the community,” Jeff Zmuda, the state’s secretary of corrections, said in a statement. “Job readiness programs, transitional planning, private and correctional industry opportunities, mentors, tutors and many other key partners all play a part, but education and training are the foundation.”

Next: Why we should support inmate education

(c)2021 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)