HBCUs are creating a new prison-to-college pipeline

His story is extraordinary, but historically black colleges and universities are trying to make it more common. Across the country, HBCUs are investing in education for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals, with the goal of reducing recidivism and building the prison-to-college pipeline.

“Behind the walls our brothers and sisters are coming home.” said Laura Ferguson Mims, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative (THEI). “And within three years, 47% will be back in prison if we keep doing exactly what we’ve been doing.”

Student Rabia Qutb
Some of Dr. Stan’s students were also formally imprisoned, like Rabia Qutb, seen above, who was released from prison about a year ago. (Jeffrey Pierre/NPR)

Since 2011, his organization has worked with Tennessee community colleges to offer degree programs behind bars.

“When we introduce post-secondary educational options while the individual is incarcerated, we cut the risk of recidivism by almost half,” she says.

HBCUs are well positioned to help incarcerated students

In 2021, THEI launched its first four-year degree program with Lane College, an HBCU in Jackson, Tenn. Like the earliest HBCUs, Lane was founded to help educate formerly enslaved people. Mims said the school’s history positions it well to help incarcerated students.

He recalls the first day of classes at Lane College at the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville. Although the lecture was scheduled to be online, the president of Lane College came to speak to the students in person. He spoke about the history of the school and the legacy of HBCUs as tools for black liberation. “The students were absolutely mesmerized,” Mims said.

Claflin University, an HBCU in Orangeburg, SC, has seen similar enthusiasm from students.

“They’ve really embraced the program and they’re probably the best recruiters for the program,” said Vanessa Harris, Claflin’s director of prison-to-college initiatives.

The program’s enrollment numbers keep climbing. “We started with 10 students last summer, I’m guessing we’ll probably be over 140 students in the fall semester,” she says.

Get help from those in your shoes

Despite the interest, college programs in prisons are hard to come by.

“My personal experience with higher education almost stopped at the door when I was incarcerated,” said Rabia Qutb, who was released from prison almost a year ago.

Student Rabia Qutb
Before spending nearly five years working in a women’s prison in Texas, Rabia Qutb finished a pre-med degree and was getting ready to apply to medical school. He says that returning to life outside was not easy. (Jeffrey Pierre/NPR)

Before spending nearly five years working at a women’s prison in Texas, Kutab completed a pre-med degree and prepared to apply to medical school. He says that returning to life outside was not easy.

“I was like, ‘I know, I want to go back to school, but how do we do it?’ OK? Like, I want to do medicine, but then I have to worry about my record.”

He began looking around, and found a program at Howard University that allowed formerly incarcerated students to gain mentorship as well as research experience in a top medical school lab.

The founder and director of the program is Stanley Andries.

For Qutb, the program offered a way to build her resume before applying to schools and get direct guidance from Andris, who has been in her shoes.

“You don’t have a lot of formerly incarcerated people chasing drugs,” he says. But if he can do it, he knows it will make a difference. Likewise Andris made a difference for him.

He said, “I’m opening doors for people, you know? So why not? Because if I don’t, how do I expect others to follow that path?”

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