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A Second Chance

IUP to Help
Educate Inmates

Dean of IUP’s School of Graduate Studies and Research and a longtime criminology professor, Randy Martin helps coordinate a pilot program that will deliver online course work to inmates. (Photo by Keith Boyer)

Randy Martin has made a career of studying the American inmate.

In the 1980s, he wrote his dissertation on the differences between assaultive and nonassaultive inmates. He then took a position on West Virginia’s West Liberty University faculty and taught classes at Moundsville Penitentiary through a community college program—before the federal government discontinued offering Pell grants to convicted felons.

A longtime criminology professor at IUP who now is dean of IUP’s School of Graduate Studies and Research, Martin is part of a team coordinating a program made possible by the U.S. Department of Education’s initiative to offer grants to qualifying prisoners.

IUP is one of four universities in Pennsylvania and one of 67 in the nation selected to participate in a pilot program that will deliver course work to inmates through the Second-Chance Pell Program, which is being implemented under the Higher Education Act.

According to WorldAtlas.com, the United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Yet, a 2013 US Department of Justice study conducted by RAND Corporation discovered that inmates who participated in correctional education were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than were prisoners who did not participate in any correctional education programs.

The economic impact could be significant as well. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has reported a growing trend in the annual cost of incarceration per inmate, reaching $33,000 in 2010.

Education also improves the chances of employment. A 2015 Department of Corrections report noted that more than 80 percent of those in the prison system fall into the category of unskilled worker.

IUP’s team, which also includes Jamie Martin ’87, M’93, D’00 and John Lewis M’02, D’06 of the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department and Ragan Watson Griffin M’89 of the Office of Financial Aid, is working with prison officials at State Correctional Institution Pine Grove in Indiana County and at SCI Houtzdale in Clearfield County to plan the program. They anticipate launching both programs over the next year.

Randy Martin said the course work, which is all online, will be offered to eligible inmates screened by the prison staff. Staff members will control and monitor student-inmate access to computers and the Internet.

The associate of arts degrees that participants earn will enable them, upon their release, to go on to complete their bachelor’s degrees.

Although it is part of the program’s title, the term “second chance” is, for many inmates, a misnomer, Martin said.

“The fundamental problem is that many of the people this program will serve never really had a first chance. People don’t have a level playing field. I mean, we’d all like to think that is the case, but it really is not. Some people are disadvantaged and disenfranchised. It’s much smarter and much less expensive to address that than it is to continually re-incarcerate people.”

Generally, he said, many of the people who make up prison populations come from economically disadvantaged circumstances. While not every person who lives in poverty is a criminal, Martin said, the most significant factor that contributes to crime is poverty, for reasons related to underemployment and lack of education as well as social and systematic factors.

Martin said he could make arguments both utilitarian and deontological, or ethical, in favor of offering a program like the Second-Chance Pell Program.

“From the deontological perspective, it just seems like the right thing to do. The United States is about everyone having access to opportunity. If people haven’t had access to reasonable opportunities, they should get it. There’s also the issue of redemption. Every major religion has some concept of redemption, and so it makes sense to put people in a position that enables them to redeem themselves or change their situation,” Martin said.

“From the utilitarian perspective, it’s just a much better investment.”