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Florida bill poised to make education in prisons more accessible

Students at Florida universities like UF will be eligible for in-state tuition, even if they were formerly incarcerated, under a bill awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature. (Alissa Gary/WUFT News)
Students at Florida universities like UF will be eligible for in-state tuition, even if they were formerly incarcerated, under a bill awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature. (Alissa Gary/WUFT News)

When Larry “Eddie” Fordham received a life sentence for felony murder at 18 years old, he was one class credit away from graduating high school.

When Fordham was released on parole in 2022 — 31 years, two months and eight days later — he left having earned his high school diploma, but this time, was just one credit away from earning his associate degree from Miami Dade College.

A year later, he graduated with honors and a perfect GPA. Just this weekend, he was accepted to the University of Alabama to pursue his bachelor’s degree.

It's thanks to his education, he said, that his life has improved since he was arrested.

Now 51, Fordham has advocated for the right to education in prison. In the fall of 2023, he traveled from Pensacola to Tallahassee to support a Florida bill that would have made it easier for him to get his degrees while incarcerated.

“To me, education means more than just textbooks and long hours of study,” he said. “To me, education means redemption.”

The bill, Senate Bill 62, is only one page long in its final draft. Its motive is simple: Florida residents will not lose their residency status for tuition purposes just because they were incarcerated. That is, an incarcerated or formerly incarcerated person enrolling in college can apply for in-state tuition and federal financial aid, including the Pell Grant.

Larry “Eddie” Fordham at his graduation from Miami Dade College. (Courtesy of Larry “Eddie” Fordham)
Larry “Eddie” Fordham at his graduation from Miami Dade College. (Courtesy of Larry “Eddie” Fordham)

The bill passed in early March with no opposition in the Senate and an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives. Now, it awaits Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature for final approval. If passed, the law will go into effect July 1.

SB 62 in practice

It’s unclear how SB 62 will change the process for establishing residency, if at all. Rather, it will ensure that people incarcerated for more than a year will not lose their residency status, said the bill’s sponsor in the House, Rep. Jervonte Edmonds, D-West Palm Beach.

If an incarcerated person was not a Florida resident outside prison, he or she will not qualify for in-state tuition. And any time spent in a Florida prison will not count toward the 12-month requirement to establish residency.

An earlier version of the bill filed in September created a pathway for people from out-of-state who were incarcerated in Florida to gain in-state tuition, but that line was cut from the final draft. A provision allowing expired documents to prove residency was also eliminated.

Both earlier provisions had to be removed for SB 62 to pass with bipartisan support, Edmonds said. What both parties could agree on, he added, was understanding the power of higher education in reducing recidivism.

Florida’s recidivism rate — defined as a return to prison within three years of being released — fell by about a third between 2008 and 2018, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. A 2013 study found educational programs can reduce recidivism by 43%.

The federal government launched the Second Chance Pell Experiment in 2015 to make higher education more accessible in prisons. The experimental program awarded Pell Grants–a needs-based federal financial aid–to incarcerated people looking to earn college degrees. About 40,000 students participated in the program between 2016 and 2022, according to a study done by the Vera Institute, a prisoner’s rights organization.

In a continuation of Second Chance, the Florida Department of Corrections now offers college courses through the Higher Education in Prisons program. Inmates at certain Florida prisons can earn their higher education through HEP, which partners with universities and colleges to offer classes in prison.

Four schools currently participate in HEP: Palm Beach State College, Miami Dade College, Florida Gateway College and Ashland University in Ohio. The latter two offer both associate and bachelor’s degrees, while the others offer only associate degrees.

Establishing residency

Larry “Eddie” Fordham had been in prison for 30 years by the time he applied to Miami Dade College’s Second Chance Pell Grant, which would allow him to get his associate degree while incarcerated. He couldn’t afford college out-of-pocket, he said, so he needed the grant to cover his costs.

But to apply for in-state tuition–about athird of the cost of out-of-state tuition–and to receive the Pell Grant, Fordham was forced to search for documents that would prove his parents’ residency from 30 years prior.

Fordham and his parents looked for voter records, property records and IDs, anything that would prove they were residents of Escambia County in 1990, the year before he went to prison. Most digitized records didn’t go back far enough, and Fordham was running out of time; his application deadline was quickly approaching, he said.

Finally, after hand-writing a letter to the Escambia County Property Appraiser, Fordham’s documentation was secured, and he could start studying. Long searches for proof of residency are not uncommon among incarcerated people, said Samantha Carlo, a professor at the Miami Dade College School of Justice.

“It takes our admissions team so much manpower to locate the documents to even establish residency,” she said. “We're hoping the law really eases this burden.”

Carlo drives an hour three days a week to Everglades Correctional Institution to teach constitutional law through HEP. Having worked in prison education programs for more than a decade, she also pushed legislators to sponsor SB 62, she said.

Versions of SB 62 filed in the 2021 and 2023 legislative sessions both died in committee. When it made it onto the legislative floor this year, Carlo said she was shocked.

“It's been a long journey,” she said, “because that issue is our biggest obstacle for our students to qualify for in-state tuition.”

Denise Rock, director of the prison reform non-profit Florida Cares, said she has also seen incarcerated people struggle to prove their residency. “You could imagine the challenge, how discouraging it can be,” she said, “to be that incarcerated person with his glimmer of hope, that perhaps I can do something positive with my time while I'm in here and get an education, and then to be met with the obstacle of, ‘provide your electric bill.’”

SB 62 should allow inmates to keep their residency, removing altogether the need to search for proof documents, Rock said. University of Florida law professor Jonathan Barry-Blocker agreed.

A committee analysis of the bill wrote that “an individual who has met the requirements to be classified as a resident for tuition purposes” doesn’t lose their residency due to incarceration. That means if inmates proved their residency before being incarcerated, they shouldn’t have to prove it again for colleges, Barry-Blocker said after reading the analysis.

“It's like it's frozen in time,” Barry-Blocker said. “You're good.”

Education outside prison

While SB 62 creates a clearer pathway for incarcerated people to access higher education, criminal history can follow students into higher education. Florida state universities, including UF, can take criminal history into consideration on applications and deny a student for their past misconduct, according to a Florida Board of Governorsstatute.

Elizabeth, 29, had graduated with a master’s degree from the University of California, Berkley, and scored in the 96th percentile on her LSATs when she was applying to top law schools in the country, including Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and New York University. She was a good applicant, she said.

But one after another, the colleges emailed her asking for a further explanation about one part of her application: Her misdemeanor shoplifting conviction.

Elizabeth, who asked to be identified by her middle name in this story to avoid jeopardizing her future job search, was put on the waitlist for every university that asked for further information about her conviction, except the UF Levin College of Law, where she now attends.

“It made me feel like they dwindled me down to that one bad decision,” she said. “It kind of felt like I just couldn't escape it.”

A 2020 study in a journal published by the American Society of Criminology found that college applicants with a criminal history were rejected three times more often than those without.

Once she was accepted, she wasn’t treated differently from other students, she said. She got good grades and was a competitive student. But when she applied for summer internships at big law firms, she was repeatedly turned down. Later, she discovered it was because of her conviction.

It was only four years after her conviction, when she secured an internship at an attorney general’s office, that she truly felt like she was more than her mistake, she said.

Her experience has made her a defense-minded law student, she said. She can look past small stumbles and see the bigger picture.

“I'm someone who fundamentally believes that we're all far more than the worst decision we've ever made,” she said.

Alissa is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing