In her first class there, Stetson University associate professor of philosophy Melinda Hall discussed whether it was wrong to lie — a likely thought-provoking choice for her audience, inmates at the Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach.

As a 5-foot-2-inch woman venturing into a men’s prison to teach for the university’s community education project, Hall admitted she was a little nervous at first. She didn’t know the offenders’ backgrounds, their crimes, or if they’d take to the lesson. The austere surroundings of razor wire, security checkpoints and numerous guards didn’t help settle her.

But her fear quickly dissipated after getting to know her students, who she said were receptive, friendly, but most of all, curious.

“It became clear to me that this space that the incarcerated students and the faculty … what we’re building together is not a space to be fearful about,” said Hall, one of the program’s four co-directors. “What we’re building together was a community.”

The volunteer effort started simple enough when it began in 2014: Bring a few books to the prison and read them. The idea was spurred on in part because of Florida’s above-average incarceration rate, Hall said.

In 2018, Florida ranked 14th in the nation for incarcerations, where for every 100,000 residents, 833 — or nearly 20 percent more than the national average of 698, were jailed, according to a prisonpolicy.org report.

“The idea was always just to connect incarcerated people in Florida with college education,” Hall said.

The program has grown since its first meeting as a reading group in the prison visiting park, Hall said. Now there’s a dedicated classroom in the prison library, and the courses covered have included workshops and guest lectures on everything from computer science to film, said fellow program co-director Jelena Petrovic, an assistant professor in communication media studies.

Because of a $210,000 grant from the Laughing Gull Foundation, which aims to increase incarcerated students’ access to college courses, the program now offers one college credit course to inmates each semester. The program is just one of two in the state that offers college credit courses to inmates, Hall said.

About six instructors taught 14 students Approaches to World Cultural Studies this semester, Petrovic said.

Because some students might not have been to college, instructors need to be flexible in how they teach the material. However, that doesn’t mean inmates get a free pass. The classes are as rigorous as those taught on campus, Hall said.

In order to focus on education, rather than the dehumanizing aspect of criminalization, instructors deliberately aren’t made aware of the inmates’ crimes, Petrovic said.

“We were all driven by this idea of community service, education as right for everybody,” Petrovic said. 

Recently, in an effort to uncover the “history that was erased by slavery,” three inmates have been collecting, transcribing and analyzing archival documents about slaves who worked at the Spring Garden Plantation, now DeLeon Springs State Park. Their findings have been published on historical websites, Petrovic said.

While critics might claim there’s more use in learning a trade than in exploring metaphysics or debating the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Hall said they’d be missing the point.

“I think it’s about soft skills of communication and connection,” Hall said. “The thing is, is that they’re being treated as a member of the community in that space … and it provides a new sense of self-worth and the ability to imagine a different future for yourself. They might not necessarily need to know how to fix a car, but they’re always going to need to know how to talk to somebody.”

Besides offering skills that could open to doors to a multitude of jobs, Petrovic said that the program, being credit bearing, could help inmates earn degrees. Further, while many prisons offer some sort of vocational education, higher education offerings are “sorely needed,” she said.

“Our partnership with Stetson University and the staff at Tomoka Correctional Institution is one that provides an incredible opportunity for inmates to broaden their higher education studies," Patrick Mahoney, who oversees the prison's academic inmate education programs, said in an emailed statement. "Stetson’s emphasis on high quality education creates an academic atmosphere that is essential to the continued learning and betterment of those involved.”

The benefits of inmate education aren’t anecdotal; a 2014 RAND Corporation study funded by the Justice Department found that inmates who participate in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prison and a 13 percent higher chance of finding a job when they were released than for those who did not.

Given the overcrowding of prisons and expense of housing inmates, programs that reduce rates of return to prison provide value for the communities the serve, Hall said.

Hall said the rewards of seeing the student accomplishments were “huge,”  and that some students, through virtual presentations of their work at conferences, have had their voices heard “outside the walls of Tomoka.”

“I found it very, very meaningful, because I was able to take what I had learned, this very rarefied stuff that you only get access to with a certain amount of privilege and make an impact and give it to people in a different way, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access it,” Hall said.

Stetson is looking to expand the program, enrolling 30 students next year. Eventually the university would like to be able to offer inmates a degree, Petrovic said.

However, for that to happen, the program would need more resources, she said, adding that those looking to volunteer or donate can visit here.

This story originally published to news-journalonline.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.