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Corrections education program’s funding slated to end

Santiam Correctional Institute. Photo by Kaitlyn Wimmer

“It provides something of hope. It lets you know you can do something different than you’ve always done,” said inmate Adam Jacobs of Chemeketa’s College Inside Program. “It’s not really about education – you are investing in society.”

Oregon’s average recidivism rate — the rate at which inmates re-offend after being released — sits at just above 24 percent. But for College Inside students, that rate now sits at just 5 percent. According to the Oregon Department of Corrections, for every $1 spent on inmate education, $2.15 is saved in lower recidivism rates. However, at the end of this academic year, the College Inside program will most likely be losing the lion’s share of its current funding.

College Inside is a program that provides college courses for students inside prisons. Chemeketa was chosen as one of only 67 colleges in the nation — and the only college in Oregon — for the Second Chance Pell Grant program. The College Inside Program was originally funded entirely by a large, anonymous donation, according to Program Coordinator Mike Budke. Then, two years ago, Chemeketa was selected as a part of an Experimental Site Initiative for the Second Chance Pell Grant, which provides federal financial aid to prisoners. But, the program is an experimental pilot program whose end is near.

Even with a possible end looming, the program has been nothing but successful. Inmates, faculty and staff alike had only good things to say regarding the program. Vice President of Instruction and Student Services Jim Eustrom said, “I would say people are passionate about it …The concept of the college inside, if you go out there and you meet the students, you meet the tutors, you know the different things, you get that connectedness.”  Even the students, such as Jacobs, said, “I see life as nothing but potential,” and “knowledge is the key that unlocks potential.”

With less than a full year of funding from the Second Chance Pell Grant remaining, the question is now whether the program will continue. The previous Executive Director of Corrections Education, Jonathan Tucker said, “We’ve clued in Julie (Huckestein) on this one, Holly Nelson on this one. They’re going to have a big decision to make; that will be a campus decision. That will not be a director decision because it’s too important politically and personally.”

While administrators are doing what they can to either extend the program or find ways to fund it after the Pell Grants end, there are champions in the community such as business owner Dave Withnell and legislators such as Ron Wyden attempting to fight for the program, according to Eustrom and Tucker. “There’s a subcommittee currently coming out on corrections education … how to improve corrections education in the state of Oregon. It’s a variety of pieces, not just College Inside. Can we pay our tutors more? Can we offer more CTE pathway programs for inmates? And that’s going on right now (in the state of Oregon),” Tucker said.

When asked if the college is intending to keep the program, current Dean of Corrections Education Holly Nelson said, “I don’t know…That’s what we’re trying to figure out, is sustainability. Do we want to allow opportunities? Yes. Do you want to allow access? Yes. But, we do have to keep the financial piece of it in perspective. Especially in harder budget years and whatnot. So, we’re trying to figure out the sustainability for the program.”

Eustrom has said it is not the college’s intention to end the program.

“We’re thinking of a mix of really doing a campaign to get outside support, looking at other grant opportunities, but we’re really focusing on the champions around getting the Pell continued,” he said, “but, the whole reauthorization of the Higher Ed act is not going to get passed this session. It’ll probably be 2021.”

With the college already facing a budget crisis, conflicting reports were given on the actual dollar amount it costs to run the College Inside program without the Second Chance Pell Grant. “We’re already supplementing it to the tune of $180,000 a year, even with the Pell,” said Eustrom. The program is projected to be only 60-65 percent paid for by Pell Grants in the future according to Nelson. As a community college, many feel it’s the college’s job to also serve the community despite the potentially negative financial impact on the college. “Community ed is not a big money maker, but it serves a different population than our regular student population. We serve the community,” Eustrom said.

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