A Second Chance: How Education in Prison helped a Student Get His Life Back

Cordero Holmes poses with his children in Phoenix, Arizona. Holmes was incarcerated for ten years in the Arizona State Prison Complex where he took his first college course.

Photos via Cordero Holmes

Resources for Reentry: Rio Salado Community College

There are colleges that have specialized reentry programs with funding available for incarcerated students. Rio Salado Community College’s incarcerated reentry program, partnered with the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, dates back to 1983. 

Holmes is a Rio Salado student.

During his seventh year in prison, a Rio Salado flyer on a bulletin board caught his eye. His first course was in 2016; an introductory English 091 course in the Arizona State Prison Complex. All the books he had read about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Dennis Banks during his time at maximum security inspired him to start writing about how to bring systemic change in America. Holmes shared some of his writing with the people closest to him who were also behind bars. 

“It had to do with the U.S. system, the educational system, the government system, and I became angry at anything that had to do with these institutions at large,” Holmes said. “I was hearing from my peers like, ‘Hey, man, I like how you wrote that down,’ but to hear it from an instructor that did something to me, like, I could do this too.”

Heather Tyler, Rio Salado’s associate dean of instruction and workforce programs, said that the mission of the community college is to reinvent the learning experience for currently or formerly incarcerated students and meet them where they are.

“Our goal is to reduce recidivism, bring work skills, and bring education to those that otherwise wouldn’t have it,” Tyler said.

The college provides educational and occupational programs at the Arizona State Prison complexes in Perryville and Lewis. Students can also take distance learning, print-based courses that they can get certified in or transfer to a 4-year university. Certifications and associate’s degrees are provided in fields like business, entrepreneurship, professional addictions counseling and substance use prevention with a selection of 90 asynchronous, correspondence courses. 

Scott Marks has been a Rio Salado professor in prisons for two years and an instructor for 30 years in schools around the country. He said teaching in prisons isn’t much different from teaching at any other school. 

“When I was training with the women’s prison, one of the students asked me, “What’s the difference between us and other students you have had?’ And I said, ‘Well, to be honest with you, if you trade your orange jumpsuits for college sweaters and jeans, nobody will know the difference between you,’” Marks said. 

 It’s easier to teach incarcerated students, he said, because they have no distractions like phones and laptops. As the students are all in class by choice, Marks said that their questions are thought-provoking and are asked with an intent to learn as much as possible compared to students in schools outside.

Melanie Abts, counseling department chair who also supervises the workforce reentry program, said that students can apply for a number of scholarships and grants for school funding, including the Pell grant. 

A Second Chance: Pell Grant Initiative

Twenty years after the ban, the “Second Chance Pell” experiment was established by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015 to gauge whether increased funding for college courses would increase incarcerated student participation. The pilot program last year had 130 colleges around the country providing courses in prisons. Rio Salado Community College was one of them.  

“We are always looking for other opportunities for students to find funding,” Abts said. “Second Chance Pell was just one more opportunity in our tool belt to be able to help support some of the funding.”

According to a 2021 Vera report, there were more than 22,000 incarcerated students nationally who completed more than 7,000 degree or certificate programs in four academic years. Since 2016, 165 incarcerated students in Arizona have taken advantage of Pell grant funding.

The U.S. Department of Education announced in December 2020 that the Second Chance Pell experiment will be expanded to include over 200 universities to provide post secondary courses in prisons with federal funding available for incarcerated students. The new program will begin in 2023.

Holmes believes with the increasing availability of Pell grant funds, more people will enroll for college courses. 

“People I was with in prison didn’t enroll in courses not because they didn’t want to but because they were still dealing with the prison environment,” Holmes said. “It’s not the same like being outside and it takes a lot more emotionally to figure out if you can get enrolled, get enrolled, and then take classes.”

According to a 2018 recidivism study, incarcerated students who have taken some form of postsecondary education in prison are 48% less likely to return to prison than other inmates. 

Louis Mendoza, director of the school of humanities, arts, and cultural studies at Arizona State University, directs the ASU Pen Project, an internship that connects people who are incarcerated in the New Mexico State Penitentiary to ASU students for writing, counseling and education. 

“​​People, whether they have an exit date or not, they need hope for their own redemption,” Mendoza said. “In a sense, education gives them an opportunity to reclaim their citizenship, you know, be part of the world again.” 

In 2015, the average cost to incarcerate someone in Arizona was over $25,000 a year. The net price to attend Rio Salado community college for a year is a little over a third of what it costs to incarcerate someone. 

Tyler said that the community college has had multiple success stories come out of its incarcerated reentry program. In 2016, when there was a worker demand in companies like Austric Field that work on houses, inmates from the Rio Salado incarcerated reentry program were recruited to fill the gaps.

The Role of Education Behind Bars

However, the Second Chance Pell experiment was available only to inmates who would eventually be eligible for release, while prioritizing those who would be released within five years.

Heulon Brown, who is incarcerated for life in the Yuma facility of the Arizona State Prison Complex, is taking a mail correspondence paralegal course at the Blackstone Career Institute. In 2012, Brown was charged with first-degree murder under the felony murder rule in Tucson, Arizona. 

He was one of four people who were a part of an armed robbery, resulting in gunfire and the death of one of them. Under the felony murder rule, if someone is killed during the occurence of certain felonies, the perpetrator can be charged with murder. 

“A lot of people in here roam around with really nothing to do and no goals and nothing to look forward to. So they kind of end up spiraling in the same circle that they’ve been doing their whole life,” Brown said. “But if you can say that I’m a college graduate, it gives you more pride in what you do, it makes you feel more valued than yourself and it will change a lot of people’s perspective on what they do when they get out.”

Brown plans to keep fighting for his release and use his paralegal certification to help people inside and outside the criminal justice system. 

Holmes, who is Black and part Native American, will graduate with two associate degrees in applied science and arts with emphasis in psychology in the spring of 2022. He is a member of multiple organizations like the Phi Theta Kappa society, Maricopa Council of Black American affairs and the Arizona Department of Education’s Indian education advisory council. He also works full-time at a stucco company.

One of Holmes’ favorite moments after he got out of prison was when he got to meet Corey Woods, the first Black mayor of Tempe. 

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