The Chillicothe Correctional Center in Missouri has a preference for what it calls its incarcerated women: students.
One of them is 44-year-old Aleicia Nolan-Jones. Her story of becoming a college graduate has been a long journey.
The mother from Kansas City, Kan., was arrested more than two decades ago. “In an instant, I went from being a 23-year-old college student and mother of three to offender No. 1088317,” she said.
Nolan-Jones became pregnant at 17 to a man who was married and 14 years older than her, she said. She dropped out during her senior year of high school but eventually received her diploma the next summer. In 1998 she gave birth to her second child, so her dream of going to college was put on hold again.
She finally entered school in 1999 as a nursing student at the age of 21. Three years and a third child later, she was 18 months away from graduating with her nursing degree. But the dynamics surrounding her relationship with her children’s father turned deadly.
“I found myself in an abusive relationship. I turned to alcohol,” she told Yahoo News. “I was working 16 hours a day, taking a full load of classes. I had a lot on my plate and three small children. I had reached my breaking point long ago, but I kept limping and kept limping until there was nothing left. My anger got the best of me, being in a drunken rage, and I ran over my children's father.”
Nolan-Jones says she didn’t see that his wife was with him — until it was too late.
Once she got to the police station, authorities informed her that she had killed his wife and endangered the lives of several other people.
Nolan-Jones was ultimately sentenced to 25 years in prison, convicted of second-degree murder, first-degree assault and two counts of armed criminal action for using her car as a weapon, she said. She felt “demoralized,” having gone from aspiring to help people as a nurse to heading to prison for taking a life.
“Education was my passport from the hood, and so when I came to prison, I literally thought my life was over,” she said.
But when Nolan-Jones returns to society in about four years, she won’t be empty-handed. She plans to reenter the job market with a college degree.
“I attend Ashland University through their correctional education program. I'm working on a major in interdisciplinary studies and minors in sociology and business administration. In May 2022, I graduated with my associate's degree in general studies and am tentatively scheduled to graduate with my bachelor's degree in May of 2024,” she said.
Chillicothe Correctional uses Securus Technologies, a communications firm serving thousands of correctional facilities across the country (comprising about 1.1 million incarcerated individuals), to deploy its educational services.
The Securus Lantern education platform, created in 2015, partners with colleges and universities to deliver postsecondary services to seven state department of corrections programs with Ashland and eight other schools.
According to Securus, nearly 8,000 students across the country were enrolled this past fall in a wide range of courses including English composition, business, communications and math. So far, the company says, 1,000 incarcerated students have earned their degrees through Securus Lantern.
“Education provides justice-impacted people with a second chance by expanding their opportunity to find a job and provide for themselves and their families,” said Dave Abel, president and CEO of Aventiv, the parent company of Securus.
“That’s why our platform and the access our tablets provide to education are so important. Our tablets transform facilities from technology deserts to modernized, digital environments.”
College prison programs help the incarcerated and society
There are hundreds of schools, from community colleges to Ivy League, that provide education to correctional facilities.
Several studies have shown that prison education doesn’t just help the person getting the degree. It can also reduce crime and lead to long-term benefits for communities across the United States.
A 2014 report from RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research organization, showed that individuals who participate in any type of educational program while in prison are up to 43% less likely to return to prison.
Rearrests are common in the United States. A 2018 U.S. Department of Justice study found that about 68% of people released from state prisons in 2005 were back behind bars within three years. But education programs can reduce recidivism.
A 2018 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology found that individuals who participate in educational programs are 28% less likely to be re-incarcerated than their peers who do not.
Renford Reese, a professor at Cal Poly Pomona and creator of the Prison Education Project, said his organization works with prisons in California, Hawaii and abroad.
“When those who are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, when they get integrated with higher education, the transformative impact is not only measurable, but it’s also immeasurable,” Reese said.
“Because with higher education, there are so many exponential byproducts of that. When it comes to the college campus, they learn soft skills. They grow more confident. They fellowship with people who are like-minded. Then they just grow, they mature and eventually, you know, that impostor syndrome that they have diminishes over time.”
Educational impact on Chillicothe Correctional Center
“I attend Ashland University through their correctiona education program. I'm working on a major in interdisciplinary studies and minors in sociology and business administration. In May 2022, I graduated with my associate's degree in general studies and am tentatively scheduled to graduate with my bachelor's degree in May of 2024,” she said.
“Basically, my life just kind of got rough from there,” Crowe told Yahoo News. “He left and took my daughter. ... At the time, I was young and didn’t really know what to do. So I turned to drugs, and basically I struggled with addiction my whole life.
“I ended up being a drug dealer,” she said. “I got pulled over, got into a high-speed chase, I hit a cop car, got caught with a lot of drugs on me. Then from there I ended up breaking out of Webster County Jail, in the midst of everything, so I just was on a total path of self-destruction.”
But that path has been reversed in Chillicothe. Crowe is graduating with an associate’s degree in general studies, and on Dec. 24 she’ll graduate with a bachelor’s in communications with a double minor in business management and business administration.
“It’s life-changing. So powerful,” Crowe said. “I want to get out and possibly open up my own business. My dad’s getting old. He's about to be retiring. So I’d like to maybe go home and start a family business with him. I’m really into motorcycles and bikes, and I kind of want to possibly open up a little shop doing that.”
Jessica Groza, 41, started using drugs at a young age and quit school at 17. By the time she was 19 she got pregnant; she was incarcerated by 20.
“I actually struggled in school my whole life. I failed the second grade, you know, I failed the eighth grade, and wound up dropping out in high school,” she told Yahoo News.
“I was in and out of lockups, and when I was 20 I wound up with a group of people, and we went and committed a robbery, and in the progress of that robbery, somebody was murdered.”
Groza has a chance for parole in 2028 and plans to leave with a BA in communications with a minor in sociology.
“I want to help people who need someone to talk to that can relate or understand where they are in life. I also want to find an organization to work for that [combats] slavery in the world, like Free the Slaves.”
Kelly Howery, the site director of the correctional education program for Ashland University at Chillicothe, gets choked up at the thought of her students becoming better individuals and eventually graduating.
“The biggest difference that I see when these women begin to realize what they're actually capable of, which was beyond maybe what they did to get there, is the confidence and the true sense that they want to help other people. To me, they’ve come full circle. They’ve committed a crime, they've harmed society and through looking deep inside themselves and working on themselves, they now have come full circle, and they want to help society,” Howery told Yahoo News.
The cost of prison education
“Prison is a very ‘me’ place. It’s a place full of ego. What I see in the women that I work with [at] Ashland is a community that is now focused on positive things, whereas they were previously involved in communities that were focused on the wrong things,” Howery said.
“I see them help each other. I see them hold each other accountable.”
Prison education isn’t cheap, but many believe it’s a cost-effective investment. A study by the Department of Policy Studies at UCLA found that “a $1 million investment in incarceration will prevent about 350 crimes, while that same investment in [prison] education will prevent more than 600 crimes. [Prison] education is almost twice as cost effective as incarceration.”
Reese added that the general public should care “because 90% of the people who are inside are going to be released at some point. They’re going to be neighbors, they’re going to be committed members. Their kids are going to play sports with their kids. So I think it’s healthy and productive for everyone to understand that we should invest in education irrespective of the person’s background because we can all benefit from it. Because when recidivism is low, public safety is high.”
As for Nolan-Jones, Crowe and Groza, they all have relationships with their children and look forward to leaving Chillicothe with a college education.
“I think they should stay connected to the university, and I think they should understand that learning is a lifelong endeavor,” Reese said.