Photo by Mike Kalasnik (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Coming from a working class family, I was encouraged to do well in school, and I aspired to go to college so that my life would not be as hard as my parents’. I had earned a scholarship to study computer science, but I threw away that opportunity when I received a life sentence at 18 years old. I had still wanted to pursue a higher education behind bars, but by the time I started my sentence in 1998, every practical path to a degree had been eliminated for prisoners. 

Prior to the mid-1990s when federal legislation disqualified felons for the Pell Grant, many prisoners in the U.S. used their time to pursue degrees by correspondence. Although a prison official needed to act as a proctor, the only real barrier for those who wanted a degree had been the cost. 

Thankfully, today that picture has changed with the lifting of the ban on Pell Grants for people in prison in December 2021, but before then education was out of reach for many of us. 

That didn’t stop me from pursuing the opportunities that were available, however. For example, while at South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton, Tenn., I worked in the computer refurbishing program, where our little shop refurbished thousands of computers discarded by state agencies and gave them to underfunded schools. When our work was finished, we were allowed to pursue an independent study. At a time when prisoners have been continuously denied access to technology, I was able to learn information technology, math, and coding.

While these accomplishments brought meaning to my life, I didn’t have an opportunity to get a degree until I found the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI), a non-profit created with the vision of bringing college classes to prisoners. When the program first came to Turney Center Industrial Complex, where I reside, I wasn’t sure if I could participate because I had a life sentence, which in Tennessee requires people to serve 51 years before they’re eligible for. Many generous donors and the brave leadership at THEI made the opportunity possible for me, and I received an associates degree from Nashville State University. 

THEI works with colleges in the state to bring accredited courses to prison through in-class and remote teaching. Today, THEI partners with Roane State Community College, Nashville State Community College, Dyersburg State Community College, Lane College and Belmont University to offer paths toward a degree to prisoners across the state of Tennessee. 

To date, 72 prisoners have received associates degrees, and 106 prisoners are currently enrolled across five programs at three prisons. I am proud to be part of the first cohort pursuing a bachelor’s in business administration at Belmont University in the fall 2021 semester.

According to THEI’s website, students who enroll in more than one semester of college have a recidivism rate of less than 15%. At THEI, zero graduates have returned to prison. The program’s success has prompted the governor to make plans to expand these offerings into every prison in the state.

In addition to the individual and societal benefits, higher education brings a palpable culture change in the prison environment. A prisoner may scoff at programs that do not seem to offer legitimate employment advantages after release, but the value of an accredited degree is undeniable. 

More than 94% of THEI alumni have reported finding meaningful employment within the first two months of returning home. When the prisoner begins to think of themself as a college student taking classes at a satellite campus, their demeanor and behavior reflects an increased dignity. One feels they are doing something constructive and redemptive with their time. 

A community develops around the pursuit of education, embracing students, staff and professors alike. Living units with a high concentration of college students tend to have less disciplinary infractions and a more peaceful atmosphere. For student-prisoners, prison becomes a place to work toward a brighter future, no longer just a place to dwell on the past.

Having lived so long without hope of pursuing a degree, I am humbled and grateful to have been part of this tide change. I hope this program and others like it continue to bloom and grow around the U.S. In my view, nothing better could happen both for prisoners and prisons.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Jacob Lee Davis

Jacob Lee Davis is a writer and musician incarcerated in Tennessee. He is a student in the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative and holds an associates degree from Nashville State University and is a business administration student at Belmont University.