Minnesota's most comprehensive effort in decades to educate incarcerated people is getting underway this fall.

Inmates at four Minnesota prisons — Stillwater, Shakopee, Lino Lakes and Faribault — are pursuing associate and bachelor's degrees through a partnership between the Department of Corrections (DOC) and some of the state's top colleges. Metropolitan State University in St. Paul is offering bachelor's degree courses at Stillwater; Minnesota State University, Mankato is bringing an associate degree program to Shakopee and Faribault, and Minneapolis Community and Technical College is enrolling Lino Lakes inmates in its associate degree program.

The University of Minnesota also is getting involved, offering a single class at the Stillwater prison this fall while it creates its own bachelor's degree program for incarcerated people.

"This is the first time in at least a generation in which … higher education in prison is a strategic priority for the Minnesota DOC," said Daniel Karpowitz, the department's assistant commissioner for education. He said he hopes the new college programs will help slash recidivism rates, improve prison culture and yield better outcomes for incarcerated people and their children.

Minnesota was once a national leader in higher education prison programming. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger came here in the 1970s to meet with inmates and speak at a graduation ceremony, and then-Gov. Al Quie signed a proclamation in 1979 recognizing a Stillwater prison education program as one of the nation's best.

Prison education programs were common nationwide into the early 1990s, with more than 350 in operation, according to the Education Trust. That number shrank significantly after Congress banned incarcerated students from receiving federal Pell Grants — their main source of financial aid — in 1994.

But last December, Congress lifted the 26-year ban, paving the way for more prisoner education programs. The restoration of Pell access for incarcerated people, which will take effect in 2023, gives the new Minnesota programs a "federally funded pathway to sustainability," Karpowitz said.

The programs currently are being supported by a mix of funding from the DOC, private philanthropy and the colleges themselves.

'A second chance'

About 120 men and women have enrolled in fall classes. Those seeking to enroll must have either a high school diploma or a GED. Beyond that, the colleges set their own admissions standards.

Incarcerated students can take full- or part-time classes, and the coursework will be just as rigorous as it is on campus. Classes will be taught inside the facilities, though inmates will have access to tablets for distance learning if a COVID-19 outbreak restricts visitors, officials said.

"The number one outcome we are looking for is academic success," said Matthew Palombo, a Minneapolis Community and Technical College professor who's coordinating the school's prison program. The college began three classes — English, ethics and political science — at the Lino Lakes prison last week.

Andre Anderson, 34, jumped at the opportunity to enroll. He already has some college credits and has spent time tutoring other inmates.

Anderson has been in the Lino Lakes prison for about six years for attempted second-degree murder and is scheduled to be released in 2026. He said he hopes to complete the college's associate degree program, enroll at the University of Minnesota Duluth after his release and eventually go to Penn State University for graduate school.

"We're still people. We still have desires to do better," said Anderson, who wants to become a mechanical engineer. "This is really giving us a second chance at life."

At the Stillwater prison, Metropolitan State University and, eventually, the University of Minnesota will offer bachelor's degrees in individualized studies, a personalized degree that combines multiple subject areas chosen by the student.

U professors will teach classes at the prison over the next year, but the school will not launch its degree program until spring 2023, said Bob McMaster, the U's vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. The university will not offer degrees in specific subjects because it would be too difficult for a single department to deliver its entire curriculum at the prison.

The DOC has made some policy changes to support inmates who are pursuing a degree.

Incarcerated students can now get paid 50 cents per hour for taking college classes the way they would for a prison job assignment, said Janet Morales, a DOC education specialist. Corrections officials did not want inmates to have to choose between being paid and attending school.

Another change is designed to ensure disciplinary actions do not interfere with inmates' studies. If a student is disciplined with solitary confinement, for example, the DOC may provide them a tablet to keep up with their coursework remotely, Morales said.

That's not to say that students who commit serious offenses will not face consequences.

"I think there's some things that would necessitate the dismissal of a student, just like on a main campus," Morales said. "But there are many instances where we feel we can successfully keep the student engaged in their studies."

Tracking results

Corrections officials say the college programs could yield promising results. The approach is modeled after the Bard Prison Initiative in New York, a program that saw just 4% of its 500 released alumni return to prison. Karpowitz worked with the Bard College program for nearly 20 years before coming to Minnesota.

The DOC is partnering with the U's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs to study how the education programs affect recidivism, job placement and even inmates' families in the coming years, Karpowitz said.

"Is this correlating with increased rates of high school graduation in their family network?" he said. "We want to influence that intergenerational cycle."

The DOC has not followed through on talk of offering the college programs to corrections officers. Karpowitz had once touted the possibility of letting officers enroll in the onsite programs at a discounted rate, a move officials thought would boost recruitment, retention and morale.

That continues to be a goal, Karpowitz said, but "COVID has put all that work on hold."

The pandemic did not halt development of the prisoner-education programs, however.

Representatives from AFSCME Council 5, the union representing corrections officers, did not respond to requests for comment.

Palombo, of Minneapolis Community and Technical College, welcomed the idea as a "powerful learning opportunity for both sides."

"I have no problem with correctional staff taking my classes sitting next to students who are incarcerated," he said. "I think it would be a wonderful opportunity to be at the same level."

Staff writer Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234