College Degrees For Inmates, Even the Lifers

In Tennessee a free college education is possible – in prison. Lipscomb University, a Christian school in Nashville, has offered courses at the Tennessee Prison For Women since 2007, as part of its community outreach. And starting this year the school is creating a path for inmates to earn a degree. This should help them get jobs once they’re out, if they get out.

Inmates from the Tennessee Prison for Women sit in a Christian Studies class

Inmates from the Tennessee Prison for Women sit in a Christian Studies class

Standing out in Class

The classes take place down a long bare hallway, and the rooms are a blend of prison blues and skinny jeans. Inmates sit at half the desks; undergrads from Lipscomb’s campus fill the rest. This evening the Christian Studies class is ranking examples of community service. A teacher poses the question about monetary donations.

“Giving fifty dollars to the United Way. Why is that community service or not so much?’ she asks looking around for someone to call on. “Donna?”

“I ranked it a 3,” says Donna McCoy from the back of the room. “Because money is always a way to just not be involved. It separates you from actively doing anything.”

Donna McCoy - inmate and student

Donna McCoy – inmate and student

McCoy is 53-years old. With shoulder length gray hair and wire framed glasses she looks every part the scholar. McCoy’s an avid poet, writer, and she could soon be a college graduate. This fall the university plans on starting to offer a 2-year, liberal arts Associates degree to inmates. “I never completed college. I never completed high school. I was a GED graduate. So to complete something is a big deal,” McCoy says.

Most women at the prison have been to some or all of high school. A few have attempted college. Their sudden interest in higher education raises some eyebrows. After all McCoy stabbed a woman to death 13 years ago. Like her, about a third of the class is either serving a life sentence or won’t get out until retirement age.

“Officers even say to us sometimes, ‘I don’t know why you all are getting a free education. You all had you all’s chance and you blew it,’” she says. “A lot of people are not as excited or enthusiastic about the program as you would think.”

Federal Pell grants used to pay for hundreds of prison programs. In the 90’s Congress decided it didn’t want prisoners taking college money from taxpayers. Lipscomb uses donations and grants to cover inmates’ schooling. Dr. Richard Goode, who founded Lipscomb’s program, admits it can be tough justifying such privilege for serious criminals. But 97 percent of Tennessee’s prisoners get out. A third usually return. And Goode says education stops that cycle.

“How this has helped is self confidence. People have told them they’re not good enough or there’s so much about the system that really exiles them.”

That confidence extends to the lifers. Aileen Baumgartner has witnessed it. She oversees one of the country’s oldest prison college programs in New York. She says those with the longest sentences make the greatest leaps, from angry and withdrawn to ambassadors.

“These women who’ve gone through the program who know they’re not going to be released, who will die there in short are these amazing positive forces in the facilities,” Baumgartner says.

Passing It Down

“My name is Donna McCoy. I’m waiting for an officer,” McCoy yells into an intercom. She’s in a doorframe of the visitation area. She must wait for a guard to pat her down before stepping foot in the large room lined with vending machines and stiff plastic chairs. A large, security door clicks open and a female guard walks through.

“It’s Ms. Hoods!” McCoy says with a smile. “It’s Ms. McCoy!” the prison guard returns. The two joke around as the guard glides her hand across McCoy’s back and down her arms and legs.

McCoy says inmates chat with staff, but they confide in each other. And she has influence. McCoy’s an older inmate, navigating a sentence that will keep her here. Younger prisoners look to her for advice.

Prison blues mix with skinny jeans in Lipscomb class

Prison blues mix with skinny jeans in Lipscomb class

“Every time I get a textbook I pass it on to someone else, unless of course it’s poetry then I don’t pass it on. But all of the history books I pass on to someone else,” she says. “Some of those girls I was passing those books onto became the second tier of people that are in classes now.”

McCoy likes being known as a mentor rather than just a murderer. She feels like helping those who will get out is in a small way making up for her mistakes.

“When they come to me and they say, ‘Well when I get out I’m going to have to come back up real quick so I’m going to go and I’m going to sell dope or I’m going to write a bad check.’ I can say to them these are some avenues or some things that you can do differently now that will help you when you get out,” she says.

Lipscomb hopes to enroll fifteen more women, bringing their total students up to 45. For a few this education won’t make it past prison walls, but it may get passed down.


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