WARTBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — Behind the walls of the Morgan County Correctional Complex is a new program. It’s offering one of the best opportunities yet to help inmates make something of their lives when they get out.

There’s now a way they can earn a college degree while they’re behind bars.

We went to the prison to check it out.

It’s an unexpected scene: a classroom full of inmates with their books open, ready to listen and learn.

A new program funded and coordinated by the nonprofit Tennessee Higher Education Initiative offers inmates a chance to earn an associate’s degree in business administration or political science to inmates, like Maceo Parker, serving time on drug convictions.

Parker never saw himself as a college student until last fall.

“This college program popped up on the bulletin board, and I took advantage of it,” Parker said. “I was like, why not? Check it out, see what’s going on.

“I took the test, passed it, and said, ‘Hey you’re in college,’ and that was like a breath of fresh air for me.”

Class time is every Tuesday and Thursday, so it takes about four years to earn a two-year degree.
When Parker is released in about a year and a half, his credits will transfer to a college on the outside, where he plans to major in marketing.

“I’m trying to do all my prerequisites while I’m here. That way when I leave, I just jump right into my major at another college,” Parker said.

Julia Gregg is education coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Correction. She keeps track of every student in the program and has high hopes for Maceo and his future.

“He’s a very driven individual and was already a productive member of our programs here,” Gregg said. “He was a perfect fit.”

How well do programs like this work? According to a Rand study, inmates who take part in any type of educational program while incarcerated are 40% less likely to become a repeat offender.

The goal is to help inmates like Parker not just get a job when they get out of prison, but get a good job; and more importantly, believe in themselves.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” Gregg said. “Never assume. Some of these people have come from very difficult situations and despite the choices they have made, they have an opportunity here to alter their path.”

The Tennessee Higher Education Initiative depends on donations for its programs. Leaders of the initiative hope to have the college classes in every state prison one day. Right now, it’s offered at three prisons.

“It gave us hope,” Parker said. “Hey, you can use this to open other doors and do other things.”