‘Pathways from Prison’ initiative at Claflin University aims to change lives of inmates

Updated: Aug. 4, 2020 at 6:23 PM EDT
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ORANGEBURG, S.C. (WIS) - Claflin University prepares to embark on a new venture to help individuals jailed thrive beyond the prison walls.

The school was selected to participate in a Second Chance Pell Grant pilot program funded by the U.S. Department of Education. It has been in operation since 2015 and the federal funds will help incarcerated individuals enroll in postsecondary programs offered at Claflin.

This new initiative at Claflin is designed to transform inmates’ lives in South Carolina federal and state prisons.

“[It will] put South Carolina in a positive educational space stamp,” said Claflin University Associate Professor Dr. Belinda Wheeler. “It’s so exciting.”

Wheeler serves as the director of this new university program, “Pathways from Prison,” which will put to use the federal funds. The program’s purpose is to provide educational, career, and housing opportunities once released from prison.

“Not only is great for the person incarcerated but the community at large,” added Wheeler. “These people are going to be our neighbors. Don’t we want opportunities and systems in place to support them? So, they can better serve themselves, their family, and the wider communities.”

“You’re starting to see these small snippets of populations who are doing such great good because of this infrastructure. If we are changing it from a small pocket discussion to a larger narrative, we can be so transformative.”

Wheeler says roughly 96% of people jailed will be released at some point. Studies from the Vera Institute of Justice show: “Incarcerated people who participate in such programs are 48 percent less likely to recidivate than those who do not,” she added.

Its report suggests, based on 50% of eligible inmates participating in such a program, prison costs would be cut by nearly $365 million per year.

Jay Holder spent 10 years in the New York State prison system. He entered when he was 32 years old and was released in 2018. Thanks to an opportunity to receive a bachelor’s degree while behind bars, he was able to change course in life.

“Without it, I would never be able to have this conversation with you,” said Holder. “I am not even the same person. I have a better command of the language. I am able to manage my emotions, things that you consistently learn inside the classroom. I’m better able to work on projects.”

Holder is currently working on a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York.

Claflin hopes to create that kind of change in our state. This past spring, the school was one of 67 schools nationally recently selected to participate in the Second Chance Pell program. The funds they receive will benefit prisoners in South Carolina federal and state prisons. Inmates that qualify will receive federal financial aid to enroll in postsecondary programs at the university.

Wheeler is thrilled Claflin joins this transformative initiative.

“For us to be able to reach back to our mission, make it part of 2020 moving forward, it’s so transformative,” said Wheeler. “I am so excited to be part of this and be one of the founding leaders in the space with President Warmack.”

The university intends to start classes for its new students later this year or in January 2021.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, since the initial rollout of this federal pilot program in 2015, more than 4,000 Second Chance Pell students earned certificates or degrees.

Last week on Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives lifted a longtime ban on federal financial assistance for prisoners in the United States to further their education. The vote paved the way for people in prison to access postsecondary education through Pell Grants.

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