WARREN, Maine — Olin Williams was 23 years old when his prison cell door closed behind him in 2001.
“A dumb kid,” he calls himself in retrospect. His mistakes cost him 15 years in the Maine State Prison for an attempted murder conviction. On the outside, Williams worked as a machinist in a factory. A college education seemed far away.
Now, about five years from release, Williams has an associate degree and plans to get his bachelor’s degree soon. Williams was one of the first student-prisoners accepted into the Maine State Prison’s college program that offers free classes to inmates who want to earn degrees.
He is one of 40 at the prison taking about two courses per semester toward a degree in liberal studies, the only degree program in the prison so far. The college tuition is about $55,000 each semester for all the students combined, plus about $7,000 for books.
Not one penny comes from taxpayer pockets.
Philanthropist Doris Buffett, sister of billionaire Warren Buffett, fully finances the program through her Sunshine Lady Foundation. The foundation supports 16 prison college programs around the country at a total cost of about $1.5 million last year.
Since Williams entered the program in 2005, he has turned his life around, he said.
“You get into a new mind-set,” he said as he sat at a table in the prison’s education building. “You step out of the criminal mind-set and into the mind-set of a student.”
Student-prisoners have a lot to lose if they get in trouble — they are stripped of their free ride and the privilege to go to classes.
“It’s not that they tell me to be good. I have to be good,” Williams said.
The goal of the program is for Williams not to come back to prison.
The National Institute of Justice, a research and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, conducted a 15-state study in 1994 of 300,000 released prisoners. It found that 68 percent were rearrested within three years, 47 percent were convicted of a new crime, and 25 percent of the released prisoners returned to a prison. At Sing Sing prison in New York, which has a similar education program, not one of the 46 prisoners who left with a degree returned to prison, according to officials.
It’s tougher to evaluate Maine’s program, as it is only 5 years old and has not yet graduated anyone with a bachelor’s degree. Recidivism rates for Maine are unavailable.
The Maine program is run by University College at Rockland and a staff member from the Sunshine Lady Foundation, with the prison’s permission. Part of Buffett’s goal is to get as many professors as possible into the prison rather than rely on interactive television courses. This requires the University College at Rockland’s director, Deborah Meehan, to carefully pick which professors she thinks will do well teaching in the prison.
It isn’t for everyone. But history teacher Patrick Mundy loves it, even more than teaching traditional college courses.
“It’s much better here,” said Mundy, who last worked at a college in Pennsylvania. At the community college where he worked, the students were young, busy with their out-of-school lives and sometimes fell asleep in his classes. “Here these guys are motivated. They have time and they want to learn.”
And they’re engaged. Mundy says he lectured a bit too much when he started teaching in the prison three years ago. Now he hands the students reading assignments with a list of discussion topics so students come prepared to chat about the Bay of Pigs, Watergate or whatever other subjects come from their history textbook, “The American Promise.”
Once class starts, the room bursts into discussion.
In a December session, the history class started with discussions of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that led to integrated public schools. Mundy asked one of his students to speak about his experiences. The middle-aged black inmate told the class about how, when he was 8 years old, he was forced to attend a whites-only school.
“They lived through it,” Mundy said. “They’re not kids — they were in it. When you teach law there is nothing better than talking with people who have gone through it.”
The cost of recidivism
Maine wants to emulate the success that Sing Sing, the New York prison, has seen. Housing prisoners is expensive. The Department of Corrections’ 2010-11 budget was approximately $143 million. Maine spends about $44,000 per prisoner per year, which soars above the national average of about $29,000 per prisoner per year, according to the National Institute of Corrections, an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons.
According to the agency, Maine has the seventh-highest cost per inmate in the nation, exceeded only by California, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Alaska and Vermont. The high per-prisoner cost likely is an issue of scale, as Maine has the lowest incarceration rate, housing about 2,000 people in the state’s prison facilities. As Maine faces an $800 million budget gap — and a hefty Department of Corrections budget, which is the third-largest consumer of the General Fund — the cheapest alternative is to keep people out, which is what this program aims to do.
Olin Williams wants to get out and stay out. He dreams of a career working with newly released convicts.
“I’ve been in that situation and I know what it takes,” he said. But mostly, he just wants to be a productive human being. “[I] owe it to the people who have stuck by [me] to make the most out of myself while I’m here. Making myself a better person, a more marketable employee.”
Preparing for ‘the outside’
Williams knows life for an ex-convict isn’t necessarily easy.
“When I get out I’ll be an ex-offender and there will be so many barriers for me,” Williams said.
In December 2000, Williams was found guilty of attempted murder, kidnapping, aggravated assault, burglary of a vehicle and eluding a police officer when he forced his then-girlfriend into the trunk of a car.
The college program works to steer newly released prisoners down the path to being good citizens — perhaps made easier by having a diploma. Otherwise, the prisoner might be the same person going out as he was coming in.
“The one that doesn’t have an education is going back to the same situation with the same skill set — plus they learn [criminal] things in prison,” said Maine State Prison Warden Patricia Barnhart. “The criminal culture has an immediate financial gain for them. You have to retrain them.”
Bert Berry was accepted into the program in August. He has about four years left to serve in prison for a conviction of unlawful sexual contact with a child and would like to get his associate degree before he leaves the system.
In addition to being on the sex offender registry for life, Berry knows that on most job applications he will have to check “yes” to the question that asks him if he has been convicted of any felonies, but he hopes a degree will push him into an employer’s sights despite that.
“School opens so many doors. It’s a smart choice. It makes you sellable,” Berry said. “Before, it was like I wasn’t going anywhere — just getting a paycheck.”
Once he is again free, he hopes to move on to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. “I don’t see any reason to stop,” he said. He wants a career in real estate.
“You get to the point where your priorities change,” said Williams, who sat near Berry at a table in the education building of the maximum security prison in Warren last month. “It’s no longer about the person you were — it’s about the person you could be.”
Effects of college on a prison
Maine has yet to award a prisoner a bachelor’s degree, but the prison is seeing changes directly tied to the college program, according to corrections officials.
Some prisoners who used to spend their free time lifting weights now have their heads buried in textbooks. The men — some of whom did not get along before — now help each other through tough classes, papers and homework. They don’t misbehave as much. The culture of the prison has shifted.
“They become engrossed in their studies. Idle minds, idle hands, a devil’s workshop,” Barnhart said. “You see a positive connection.”
Barnhart said that, within the student-prisoner population, misconduct is down compared with prisoners who are not in the program.
Ryan Currier started college about two years ago and is working toward his associate degree. As one of the more senior students, he helps the newer students with homework.
“In five or six years I’ll be back in society, and I don’t want to be back here again,” Currier said. “I want to be successful. I don’t want to get out and go do what I was doing before.”
Currier is serving time for gross sexual assault and kidnapping convictions.
With that in mind, Currier chooses to work on essays for his history class in his spare time instead of playing Ping-Pong or working out.
“The more I’m dedicating to [school] the more I get myself away from the prison culture,” he said. “It’s moving me down a better path. I’ve become a better critical thinker and more open-minded.”
According to prison officials, the men who go to class gather in study groups in their living quarters — and it’s changing the vibe in the concrete buildings.
“The men support each other,” said the prison’s deputy warden Leida Dardis. “It makes a difference in a pod. It makes a difference in the culture — it makes a difference in the community.”
Prisoner Joe “Bill” Rouleau is in his first semester of the college program and already gets comments from other prisoners in his pod about how much he studies.
He also has some tips from veteran students about which teachers are the hardest and what they expect (Mundy hates papers written in the passive voice, for instance). Rouleau likes helping others too. He dreams of a career helping to rehabilitate others who have been to prison. For him, college is a needed gift that he could never have afforded on the outside.
“When you look at the recidivism rate — I need all the help I can get,” Rouleau said. He wants to see more programs like this within the razor-wire perimeter.
But does it work?
Although the numbers out of Sing Sing are impressive, the sample size is small. About 200 students have graduated from the New York program, but in its 12-year run only 46 of them have been released.
None of those men has returned to prison. And with New York’s cost per prisoner — the country’s highest, at $55,670 per inmate per year — those 46 success stories mean big savings for the state.
“It is millions of dollars we saved New York,” said the program’s executive director, Sean Pica.
Maine’s program is too young to have generated statistics. No prisoners have yet received a bachelor’s degree. But at least one man has been released from the prison with his associate degree.
Details that would identify the man were not released, but Beverly Bayer, coordinator of Student Services at University College at Rockland, who has worked with the prison for about 19 years, said a man released early last year left for Massachusetts where he is now working toward his bachelor’s in business.
“If it wasn’t for his continuing his education he would be continuing [what] he was doing in the first place — that’s what he told me. He used to be a drug dealer. His education has broadened his knowledge base so now he knows what better things there are to do,” Bayer said.
The man now lives with his fiancee and her two children. He goes to school and has a part-time job, Bayer said.
“He is getting on with his life. Because of his education it’s a new life.”
Several studies verify that college programs in prison lower the recidivism rate, but some question if it’s the degree that leads to the change or the change in attitude of the inmate to pursue the degree.
“It’s a chicken and egg issue for me: Is it because of the degree they’re not recidivating or is it the willingness to change their life? The degree is a reflection of that,” said Mark Rubin, a research associate at University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.
It’s hard to pinpoint.
The selection process for prisoners who would like to enter the program is rigorous. Applicants must have relatively clean in-prison records. If they are admitted to the program, they need to stay out of trouble, or risk getting thrown out of college. The program director for prison college winnowed 90 applicants down to 15 in the last round — some of those men had been waiting since 2008.
The stipulation of prisoners behaving means that the average prisoner-student would have to behave for about eight years — the length of time it takes to get a bachelor’s degree in prison. Eight years of good behavior can be difficult, Rouleau said.
“It requires dedication,” he said. “In prison, trouble has a way of finding you. You have to work to stay out of those situations.”
Rubin, who supports educating prisoners, has researched factors that cause an ex-prisoner to re-enter a life of crime. “There are other factors that are possibly contributing. Employment is a big factor, and if you have a B.A. you have a better chance to get a job.”
Either way, Rubin said, “I think the more programming these folks have the better chance they have of overcoming those barriers and the negative influences that could lead them to reoffend.”
The prison staff and people who work in the program have heard arguments that in a tough economy, when working-class people save pennies to send their well-behaved children to college, it’s unfair for convicts to earn a bachelor’s degree for free. But the prison warden doesn’t think it’s an either-or situation. About 95 percent of the inmates in Maine State Prison eventually will be released back into their communities, she said.
“If we can make a turn in that path for them, it turns that path for us,” prison Warden Barnhart said. “They could be your neighbors.”