How Prison Education Programs Transform Lives and Communities
In 2014, Benito Castro was sentenced to six years in prison for passing bad checks as a result of a gambling habit he’d developed. Today, he’s the director of operations for a grocery store chain and runs freedomrides.org, a non-profit he started that provides transportation for those recently released from prison.
Castro credits his transformation to the education he received through Ashland University while in prison.
“I earned my degree while I was still incarcerated, and that made all the difference in the world when I was released. It gave me a sense of purpose and led to a whole new life.”
After early release, Castro took a job as a dishwasher at a Huddle House restaurant and met someone from Ideal Market grocery stores, who hired him as a night manager. From there, Castro quickly rose to district manager, director of marketing and then director of operations for the chain.
“I’m a different person today thanks to the Ashland program. I have financial security. I’m contributing to society. And most of all I have self-respect,” said Castro.
Ashland University operates the largest correctional education program in the nation. It has more than 4,000 incarcerated students enrolled at 120 facilities in more than a dozen states and has graduated nearly a thousand students since 2016, when the school began offering distance learning beyond its home state of Ohio.
The program features the same academic rigor and learning outcomes as the university’s on-campus curriculum, and is free for students who qualify for Pell Grants or receive Ashland University scholarships or other assistance. There is also no cost to the prison.
“Providing access to this underserved community is an integral part of our mission to transform people’s lives through education so they can go on to work, serve and lead in their communities,” said Dr. Carlos Campo, president of Ashland University. “And in many of the places where we operate, there are no other options available to inmates who want to use their time in prison to further their education and invest in themselves.”
Andrea Buttross, Louisiana Department of Corrections education director, says Ashland’s distance-learning program is deployed on an easily managed platform providing those about to re-enter society an opportunity to access education that they may not traditionally have received in the prison setting.
“Ashland has decades of experience working within prison systems and they know how to operate in this unique environment,” said Buttross. “They provide all necessary aspects of the program: the technology, all of the curriculum and resources for the classes, direct contact with professors, and even an on-site academic coordinator to help students progress toward their degrees.”
There are advantages to distance learning in prisons—especially in the age of COVID. Classes are available to more students in places where in-person options are unavailable. Students can take classes anytime during the day, and their education can continue once they’re released, regardless of where they live.
“The incarcerated face a lot of obstacles in attaining an education because they often have limited access and fewer choices,” said Dr. Campo. “We want to change that, one successful student at a time.”