Miami Dade College (MDC) celebrated its debut with three ceremonies last April at LoanDepot Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins. American surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy, Florida Lieutenant Governor Jeannette Nuñez and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jason Taylor spoke. Later this month, the MDC will hold a less glamorous but no less important ceremony: the presentation of associate degrees to 18 incarcerated students at Everglades Correctional Institution.
These students are the MDC’s first class in the Second Chance Pell Experience, a 2015 initiative by the Obama administration to make federal Pell grants available to prisoners, who had been barred from receiving funds since the wave of “tough on crime”.
While serving their sentences, the students took comprehensive courses, including philosophy, chemistry, and Spanish, which allowed them to graduate in a year and a half. The path has not been easy for students or administrators – the program started in January 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program was forced into some kind of correspondence model when the Everglades built the computer lab.
“Many other schools have pushed back their launch date,” said Samantha Carlo, co-director of the MDC’s Institute of Educational Empowerment. “We were determined to get it started as soon as possible, whatever that meant. So we started packing. We went to the prison every week and distributed them. The students wrote down all their questions. We came back at the end of the week, we picked up the packages, we brought them to the faculty, and the faculty answered us. It was very manual, very laborious.
However, the students succeeded despite the lack of direct contact with their professors.
“All of our students passed this first semester,” said Carlo. “And I think that gave them confidence. They were like, ‘Look, we were able to do it in this weird format.’ So once the professors started meeting, that’s when they were like, ‘Wow, this is really what college is like.’
When in-person instruction returned, students continued to thrive. The first cohort of graduates finished with an average GPA of 3.75. Some may find this level of success surprising, but they shouldn’t, according to Dr. Stanley Andrisse, executive director of From Prison Cells to PhD, an organization that helps ex-prisoners navigate the world of education.
“These students inside have this level of motivation and determination, just, different,” said Andresse.
A prime example is Larry Fordham, an MDC student serving a life sentence when he received funding from Second Chance Pell. Fordham’s work was so strong that he was awarded the MDC Academic Excellence Award in Social Sciences, beating out other non-incarcerated applicants.
“You really weren’t in an environment for any kind of study, but we made it work,” Fordham said. “At night, I would do my reading, then I would fall asleep. I would wake up in the morning, maybe around 5:30, 6:00, and go to the common room because I didn’t have a table in my cell. This is where I did my real homework.
But Fordham’s study time was limited.
“I used to do my writing in the morning when I had the use of the table,” he says. “After 10 or 11, the guys play spades, checkers or chess. They bang on the tables; they make a lot of noise. So, I had to navigate around that. It was really about, ‘How bad do you want it?’ “
Despite the difficulties, Fordham said his participation in Second Chance Pell was respected by other prisoners.
“It’s funny, because you’d think guys in gangs or guys who are into negativity would give you a hard time, but, deep down, these people actually respect people who go the extra mile. to change their lives,” said Fordham. “When they know you’re sincere, they’ll come and say, ‘I’m proud of you, man.'”
Politicians also recognize the benefits of education for incarcerated people. Although the Pell Second Chance Experiment was controversial when it was announced, with Republicans claiming President Obama overstepped his authority, the program was expanded by the Trump and Biden administrations. And in 2020, Congress voted to end the ban on federal Pell grants for incarcerated people, effective July 2023.
Even before grants become more widely available, MDC plans to expand its offerings. Sixteen of the graduates who are still incarcerated will begin courses toward a bachelor’s degree, and a new cohort of associate degree students is enrolling. MDC is also opening a similar program at the Everglades Re-Entry Center, a different prison on the same grounds.
For Andrisse, these are encouraging signs.
“These programs are life-changing for the people who participate in them,” said Andrissa. “These students have now been given this key that opens doors to them that were previously closed to them, which they never even imagined they would be able to walk through.”
Fordham, for example, was paroled this spring and works for a Tampa nonprofit while pursuing a business degree.
“My prison education means more to me than books and long hours of study,” Fordham said. “It means redemption.”