Three dozen men walked through the aisles of Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City on Wednesday, adorned in shiny green robes and caps and yellow chords over their shoulders.
After steadily doing coursework since fall 2019 and battling the pandemic in 2020, members of the Second-Chance Pell Pilot Program graduated with various degrees. The program offers 65 out of 5,000 incarcerated applicants the chance to get the college experience they need to ensure employment after they get out. Despite the pandemic getting in the way, this program has successfully increased their confidence and community with their classmates and families.
Graduate Bruce George said the completion of a degree while working against the odds of incarceration and the COVID-19 pandemic makes his classmates and him very proud.
“This record that we have now, it’s always something that’s like a blemish or a mark against us,” he said. “You can’t say this offsets it, but it works towards that goal. We have something to be proud of , something we can say we did. Nobody can take this away from us.”
The Second-Chance Pell Pilot Program has been in place since 2015, with its first cohort beginning in 2017 and graduating in Spring 2019. That Fall, George was moved into the program’s separate dorm, where he and 64 other incarcerated men would live together, eat together and even take care of their adopted dog Rajah together while they participated in the program. Here, they participated in classes taught on-site by professors from Florida Gateway College until early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic complicated things.
George said after leaning on their few visits with family at the beginning of their instruction, the loss of that connection was confidence-breaking.
“A lot of us are used to seeing our families in visitation even if it’s just once a month, every couple months,” he said. “None of us saw our family for over a year, so focusing on what’s important, keeping a good frame of mind and working on school work was really tough to do when you don’t have that support there in your face.”
George said there were a few hiccups when it came to instruction as well. At first, the program had issues with being able to provide distance learning, but as it persisted, they began to adapt, setting up synchronous and asynchronous class settings for George and his classmates.
Florida Department of Corrections Assistant Chief of Education April Calnin said she was proud of how they were able to make the program work through the roadblocks of the pandemic.
“I’m just very grateful that the department of corrections and the college were able to implement the different technology solutions so that the students could continue to learn,” she said.
Calnin said she thinks these changes will open opportunities for future students in the program. This includes, she said, more openness from instructors who may be wary of teaching in a prison. With the added option of virtual learning, providers have a wider range of options for getting involved with incarcerated students.
Through the issues and the hiccups, the final graduating class of 36 was able to walk across a stage and receive the degrees they had worked for. For many, this was a step in the direction of a career as well as confidence in their ability to successfully enter the outside world again.
George’s grandfather, Bruce Carnahan, said he saw his grandson grow from a young man of 19 with worries about his adjustment after his sentence to a confident grown man with an education and job prospects waiting for him.
“He has matured a lot, and his outlook on things has changed a lot,” Carnahan said. “It took a lot off his mind because that was the main thing he was dwelling on: ‘What am I gonna do when I get out? How am I gonna earn a living and be self-supportive?’”
George said he hopes his degree shows future employers that he is hard-working and used his time in prison wisely despite the unique difficulties of learning while incarcerated and learning through the pandemic.
“It’s definitely nice to say I’ve committed to four years of working hard for this degree, and I’ve got it,” he said. “It’s something an employer will see that this time wasn’t entirely a waste. I really made the best of it.