How College in Prison is Changing Lives

For nearly 30 years, only a small percentage of people have been able to get college degrees in prison. That’s about to change.
Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer
Jun 21, 2023

Dameon Stackhouse was watching the daily announcements as they played on a loop at East Jersey State Prison, as he did most mornings, when he heard one for a new program that would allow prospective students to complete college courses while in prison. He listened three times before it fully sank in.

“I got excited, I started telling everybody,” Stackhouse recalled.

Dameon Stackhouse is the community police alliance coordinator for the Bridgewater Police Department in New Jersey, where he responds to calls related to mental health and domestic violence, among others, and connects residents with resources. Photos by Victoria Stevens.

When the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) initiative launched at East Jersey State Prison in 2013, Stackhouse was among the first cohort of students. Over the next four-and-a-half years, he completed college courses in subjects including calculus, physics, psychology, and Arabic.

“The experience of actually being able to take college courses while I was inside changed my life. It gave me hope,” Stackhouse said. “I realized, you know what, there’s no limit to what you’re going to be able to do . . . if you focus at this particular moment.”

Now, a decade later, NJ-STEP allows people in five of New Jersey’s eight prisons to take courses offered by Drew University, Princeton University, Raritan Valley Community College, and Rutgers University. Students can graduate with an associate’s degree in liberal arts, a bachelor’s degree in justice studies, and a master’s certificate in religious leadership and social transformation.

Stackhouse is part of a fortunate minority of people who have had access to college courses while incarcerated. That’s because college in prison has been limited for nearly three decades since the 1994 Crime Bill banned incarcerated students from accessing Pell Grants. Without this federal need-based aid, many incarcerated students could not afford college. And when enrollment dropped, the number of college-in-prison programs plummeted, down to only a handful.

In 2016, the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (SCP) began to help fill the gap left by the ban on Pell Grants. Through SCP, the U.S. Department of Education has provided Pell Grants to students in state and federal prisons who attend one of the 200 participating colleges (a list that includes Rutgers and Raritan Valley Community College). In the first six years of SCP, more than 40,000 students participated in postsecondary education through the program, and SCP students have earned nearly 12,000 credentials.

But now, the number of students in prison who can receive Pell Grants is set to grow exponentially. In December 2020, Congress overturned the long-standing ban, and when the law takes effect this July, all academically eligible incarcerated people, regardless of sentence length or conviction type, will be able to apply for Pell Grants to help pay for college during the 2023–2024 academic year.

Vera was part of a coalition that advocated for Pell reinstatement and provides technical assistance to the colleges and corrections departments that participate in SCP.

“We’ve come so far,” said Margaret diZerega, managing director of initiatives at Vera. “To now see such strong bipartisan support on federal, state, and local levels and a growing number of collaborations, like NJ-STEP, between corrections departments and colleges is really remarkable.”

Vera estimates that 760,000 incarcerated people will be eligible to receive Pell Grants to fund their college education.

“So many formerly incarcerated leaders fought for this change, alongside corrections, college groups, and other advocates, to get us to this pivotal moment,” diZerega said.

“An opportunity at a new life”

CJ Suranofsky was sentenced to prison in his late 30s.

“I honestly didn’t think I would come home,” he said.

Then, several years into his sentence, Lee College—which has been offering college degrees to incarcerated people in Texas since 1966—started offering courses at the O.L. Luther Unit, where Suranofsky was incarcerated.

“Having the opportunity to go to college in prison started allowing me to relax and focus my energy solely on what I was going to do the day I went home,” Suranofsky said. “And that's what education is in prison. It's an opportunity at a new life.”

CJ Suranofsky is a warehouse site manager who's overseen the opening of three new locations in Texas over the last two years. He'll be moving into upper management next year. Photos by Zach Chambers.

He earned an associate’s degree in business management while incarcerated, as well as certificates in production management and entrepreneurship.

Research underscores the value of college in prison—which benefits students, families, and communities. Some studies suggest a college education can help formerly incarcerated people secure well-paying jobs and find stability when they return home. Ninety-five percent of people in prison will return home, and people who have participated in postsecondary education programs in prison may have up to 48 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who have not.

Lee College offers a number of degrees and certificates in high-demand fields, such as commercial truck driving, to incarcerated students, which helps them secure stable employment upon release.

Donna Zuniga, associate vice president of Lee College’s Huntsville Center, said the recidivism rate for formerly incarcerated people who have participated in Lee College programs is six percent, compared to Texas’s recidivism rate of about 20 percent within three years of release. This data, she said, has helped the Texas legislature and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice recognize the value of these programs.

“These programs work,” Zuniga said. “They reduce the cost of incarceration, and people can get on with their lives.”

The Rand Corporation estimates that every dollar spent on college-in-prison programs saves taxpayers five dollars in reincarceration costs. And lower reincarceration rates due to postsecondary education can cut the cost of state prison spending by more than 350 million dollars every year.

“A cultural shift”

Graduates know firsthand how college changes the dynamics inside prison.

“Prison is dangerous. Prison is ugly. You've seen gang violence, you've seen drugs, you've seen suicide,” Suranofsky said. Having something positive—like school—to focus on allowed both him and his peers to relax.

Research supports his observations that higher education programs help reduce violence in prison, creating safer conditions for incarcerated people and staff.

“Guys who were going to school [knew] that if they got in trouble, if they got a major case for whatever, they were going to lose that opportunity,” Suranofsky said. “And then their mindset changes. They don’t even think about doing it because they want to succeed.”

Stackhouse reiterated the impact college had within East Jersey State Prison, where classes and assignments became the primary focus: “You have a cultural shift where violence is no longer a part of it, and everyone is starting to focus on education,” he said.

Dr. Darcella Sessomes, chief of programs and reintegration services at the New Jersey Department of Corrections, also acknowledged the impact college in prison can have.

“Those who participate in the college program in the correctional facilities understand that this is a real opportunity. And they don’t want to mess it up,” she said. “Their focus is on doing a good job, wanting to get good grades.”

“The extra mile”

Jamie Gregrich had been out of prison for only three days when she enrolled in the Anchor Program, which provides support to students after incarceration as they complete their degrees with Shorter College, a historically Black junior college in Arkansas.

“We realize that everything in their life—especially when they get out of prison—can be a little hectic,” said Rick Watson, director of support services at Shorter. Students may, for example, have to report to a probation or parole officer, or they may have to get a job within a certain amount of time, or they might have histories of substance use.

Jamie Gregrich is pursuing a bachelor's degree in social work from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock while she works as a reentry program specialist for Goodwill. Photos by Jenn Terrell.

“We recognize that if we don’t address those things, then they won’t be successful in school,” Watson said. “We focus on creating an atmosphere where our reentry population can be successful.” That means helping students access whatever resources they need, including food, housing, and mentorship.

Gregrich, for example, recalls Watson pulling up to the halfway house where she was staying to deliver a textbook and coursework. Later, he would do the same to deliver a free laptop, which Shorter provides to all Anchor students, along with a Wi-Fi hotspot.

“It's really cool when you can find people that believe in you,” Gregrich said.

diZerega said the Anchor Program offers an excellent model for how colleges can support formerly incarcerated students on their main campuses.

“With the reinstatement of Pell, we expect to see more people leaving prison and continuing their education on college campuses,” she said. “All colleges, regardless of whether they’re teaching in prison, should be thinking about how they can build or expand the supportive services they offer to help formerly incarcerated students be successful.”

Gregrich has since graduated from Shorter with an associate’s degree in entrepreneurial studies, and she is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in social work from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock while she works as a reentry program specialist at Goodwill. She counts several people at Shorter, including Watson, as part of her support system.

“They impacted my life so much and showed me that there are still people out there that care and that are willing to go the extra mile to help you as long as you’re putting forth the effort to help yourself,” Gregrich said.

Stackhouse and Suranofsky similarly speak to the impact college professors and staff have had on them, both during their incarceration and since their release.

Suranofsky likened his professors to coaches: “The coach’s primary responsibility is to believe in you until you begin to believe in yourself.” His professors played that role, too. In the classes he took while working toward an associate’s degree in business management, they addressed the unique challenges, barriers, and stigmas that formerly incarcerated people face, and they taught perseverance and resilience.

“You’re gonna get told ‘no’ 99 times,” Suranofsky said. “It’s just focusing your energy on pursuing the ‘yes.’”

“Still growing, still climbing”

Suranofsky was released from prison in April 2020. Now, three years later, he lives in Houston, where he is a warehouse site manager. He’s overseen the opening of three new locations in the last two years. He’s excited about moving into upper management next year, with stock options.

“The habits I created while pursuing an education in prison are the habits that carry me now,” Suranofsky said.

After his incarceration, Stackhouse went on to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work. He is the community police alliance coordinator for the Bridgewater Police Department in New Jersey, where he responds to calls related to, for example, mental health and domestic violence, and connects residents with resources. On any given day, he might deliver food, help someone find housing, or connect someone with treatment options. He is working toward becoming a licensed clinical social worker and plans to pursue a doctorate in education—and he was just approved by the New Jersey Department of Corrections to teach in prison.

“I’m still growing, I’m still climbing,” Stackhouse said. “And it’s not for myself. It’s for all of us.”