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Rio Salado Expands Services to Students in Prison as U.S. Dept. of Ed. Experimental Site

President Smith at incarcerated student grad ceremony, students in classes Incarcerated student working on a water heater Incarcerated student working on a drill press Incarcerated student working on automotive parts Incarcerated student working on car engine

Rio Salado College Expands Educational Opportunities to Students in Prison as 2020 U.S. Dept. of Ed. Second Chance Pell Experimental Site

The U.S. Department of Education has included Rio Salado College as part of an expansion of the Second Chance Pell  Experimental Sites Initiative, which was created to provide need-based Pell grants for people incarcerated in state and federal prisons to pursue higher learning. The majority of incarcerated individuals are Pell-eligible; however, they have been banned from applying for assistance since 1994— until the creation of the Second Chance Pell initiative was launched in 2015.

“We have been serving incarcerated populations for decades in a variety of ways, and we take great pride in being a college of second chances,” said Rio Salado Interim President Kate Smith. “Now, thanks to the Second Chance Pell program, the eligible students we serve will have the opportunity to apply for financial aid to continue their education. We believe this financial aid opportunity will enable others who have not had the means to pay for college to begin their educational journey, enrich their lives and prepare to thrive post incarceration.”

Rio Salado’s Incarcerated Re-Entry (IRE) Programs serve nearly two-thousand students at prison facilities across Arizona, thanks to a long-standing partnership with the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (ADCRR) that began in 1983. The college provides more than 90 distance-learning, correspondence-based courses for incarcerated students in Arizona and across the nation. Approximately 750 students are taking in-person classes at Arizona facilities and approximately 1200 students are completing their program of study through correspondence.

Students can earn certificates in fields such as Small Business Start-Up and Addictions and Substance Use Disorders, as well as associate degrees. Rio Salado also contracts with ADCRR to provide in-person Automotive, Construction Electrical, Construction Plumbing and other types of Career and Technical Training at Lewis and Perryville prisons. Some of these students have helped to fill high-demand jobs including shortfalls in construction-related trades, as noted in this KJZZ 91.5 story.

“This opportunity is not lost on me; I have a newfound confidence that will assist on my continued journey to be better,” said student Jonathan Sosnowicz in a letter to Rio Salado’s IRE team. Sosnowicz is a Phi Theta Kappa honors student with a 4.0 grade-point-average, who is three classes shy of earning an associate of arts degree. Rio Salado’s IRE team is working with him to achieve his goal of transferring to a university to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“These accomplishments and goals have given me confidence and self [-] respect,” said Sosnowicz. Now people give me praise for achievement of how I live now, not judgement from a terrible incident over a decade ago. I feel prepared for the future.”

"Programs like this are not only important for our community but also for our society as a whole; providing accessible education to incarcerated students provides a new path and a fresh start," said Maricopa Community Colleges Interim Chancellor Steven R. Gonzales. "The Maricopa Community Colleges are in the business of helping people, and we are pleased that the U.S. Department of Education has included Rio Salado College in the Second Chance Pell program."

Providing access to postsecondary education in prison is proving to reduce recidivism and better equip people to play productive and positive roles within their communities. Access to postsecondary education has demonstrated impact to improve prison safety.

“This expansion of Second Chance Pell will improve lives and strengthen communities,” said Nick Turner, president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice. “The expansion is also a testament to the fact that broader access to college in prison is a strategy that works-- to improve safety and expand opportunity in our country.” The Vera Institute of Justice has been providing technical assistance to the participating colleges and corrections departments since the initiative’s inception, working to ensure that the programs provide quality higher education in prison and post-release.

“I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several Second Chance Pell institutions and have seen firsthand the transformative impact this experiment has on the lives of individuals who are incarcerated,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “By expanding this experiment, we are providing a meaningful opportunity for more students to set themselves up for future success in the workforce. The stories I’ve heard from students and institutions engaged in the experiment are very encouraging, and we look forward to seeing how this expansion will help even more students achieve a better future.”

Rio Salado is one of 67 new schools included in the expansion, which will bring the total to 130 colleges in 42 states and the District of Columbia participating in the 2020 program.

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