This is the second in a series of stories about education opportunities in Ohio’s prisoners. Read the first story here.
Dexter Bass earned his bachelor’s degree from Ashland University behind bars.
The 60-year-old was sentenced to prison in 1990 for murder and was recently granted parole. Before prison, his highest academic attainment was graduating high school.
“What education does is it opens up a whole other world to a person and makes them just more confident in themselves,” Bass said. “When I started going through a lot of classes, and then I had little gradual successes, that built up my confidence, and I realized, wow, I can do so much more.”
The Ohio Capital Journal recently toured the education classes offered at Richland Correctional Institution (RiCI), a prison in Mansfield with about 2,560 incarcerated men.
RiCI, which opened in 1998, sits next to the Ohio State Reformatory, where TheShawshank Redemption was filmed. It is a Level 1 and Level 2 facility, meaning it has the lowest level of security. A prisoner’s behavior determines what level they are in. Ohio has five levels of prison security — with Level E being the highest.
“The Level 1 and 2’s, what we decided, are those are our guys who are conducive to learning,” Black said. “Those are the guys who, hopefully, aren’t getting into as many fights.”
RiCI enrolled 738 students in various Ohio Central School System (OCSS) programs, and there were an additional 143 students in apprentices in July, said JoEllen Smith, spokesperson for Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC).
Ohio Central School System
The OCSS is a state-supported school system through the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) that provides educational opportunities to the incarcerated. All 28 of Ohio’s adult prisons have educational opportunities, said OCSS Superintendent Jennifer Sanders.
Through the OCSS, those who are incarcerated can earn their GED, associates or bachelor’s degree. OCSS also offers apprenticeships and career technical training opportunities in over 25 career tech fields, Sanders said.
“This is an investment in the people’s lives to allow them to leave us and not come back,” Sanders said. “Research is very clear that post-secondary achievement does reduce recidivism.”
Those who participate in some type of education program while incarcerated were up to 43% less likely to return to prison and were 13% more likely to be employed, according to a RAND Corporation Survey.
Ohio prisons release 18,000 people each year on average.
“It’s a rehabilitative necessity,” Sanders said. “In our view, it is an investment in the future of Ohio. We want to make sure that we are providing the educational opportunities they need, those tools they need so that when they come back in Ohio they can do so and be productive citizens.”
According to ODRC, 3,247 students earned advanced job training (college) certifications or degrees and 959 students earned high school equivalency certifications during fiscal year 2023.
“It allows you to accomplish something that nobody can take from you,” said RiCI’s Warden Kenneth Black. “I want them to get everything they can while they are here so when they go home, they are doing the right thing and taking care of their kids and parents.”
The classes also teach them life skills.
“I tell these guys that once you get your education, what one thing does, it teaches you to communicate on a different level,” Black said. “And our folks really need to learn to communicate on a different level. Sometimes they got here based on their communication skills, and not understanding.”
Bass said he has learned patience, endurance and how to deal with frustration through the classes he has taken.
“It really teaches you all those soft skills that you really need,” he said.
ODRC has partnered with seven Ohio colleges and universities including Ashland University, which offers courses at RiCI.
“As these men and women do leave the institutions, there’s far more opportunity to venture into higher wage jobs,” said James Cox, the assistant vice president of correctional education at Ashland University.
Randy Jones started taking classes through Ashland last year and plans to graduate with a degree in communications and a minor in Christian ministries next year.
“Having an opportunity to take classes to continue my education is just wonderful,” the 51-year-old said. “It’s so important because even though we’re in (prison) when you step into this classroom, it’s like being out of prison.”
Jones, who was sentenced on July 2, 2015, for involuntary manslaughter, previously earned his bachelor’s at the University of West Florida and his master’s in business administration at Hodges University.
“Since I’m here, I want to get a communications degree to help broaden my skill set,” he said.
Jones hopes to be an inspirational speaker when he gets out of prison and talk to young people about “how to avoid pitfalls.”
“Getting a degree in communication is going to open up those doors,” he said.
During fiscal year 2023, 683 students earned apprenticeship certifications, according to ODRC. The apprenticeships offered range from baker to graphic designer to welder.
Evan Norris never bothered with computers much before prison. Now, he is helping create a 100-page cookbook using InDesign in the visual communication classroom at RiCI.
“I’m more fluent with it now though,” the 36-year-old said. “It took me a long time to get (InDesign).”
He was sentenced on six counts of rape in October 2013, and earned his GED while in prison in 2018. He is currently working on a graphic design apprenticeship and is thinking about taking classes through Ashland.
“I think (the classes are) very important,” Norris said. “They are beneficial. People should take advantage.”
Lynnmarie Fye, the visual communications teacher at Hope Valley School at RiCI, is consistently impressed by her students’ talents.
“Honest to god, they’re like naturals,” Fye, who has worked at RiCI for 22 years, said. “They have it within them.”
The career technical education programs range from auto technology to barber to carpentry. 1,484 students earned career technical education certifications during fiscal year 2023, according to ODRC.
OCSS prioritizes prisoners for career technical courses who are nearing their release date.
“We want to make sure they are getting up to date skills at the time they are going to use it when they leave,” Sanders said.
Brandon Houston earned his GED two months ago and enjoys the auto body and welding classes.
“I like seeing progress in myself,” Houston said. “I have skills now.”
He hopes to take classes at Hobart Institute of Welding Technology in Troy after he is released next October. The 26-year-old was sentenced on Dec. 13, 2021, for two counts of felonious assault and two counts of aggravated vehicular assault.
Rhonda Grys helped open the barber school at RiCI in 1999. It started with 20 students and now the two-year program has at least 30 students.
The students must pass a safety test before being allowed to work on the floor, and an incarcerated person can come to the barber shop twice a month for a haircut.
Incarcerated students can even take their state board exam to become a licensed barber, which requires clocking 1,800 hours of training. With a license in hand, they could get a job at a barber shop in Ohio.
“We’ve had so many students say they never finished anything in their life,” Grys said. “This is their first accomplishment that they’ve ever done in their lives.”
Savalas Crosby helps take care of RiCI’s organic vegetable garden in the prison yard — including peppers, tomatoes, corn, asparagus, strawberries, potatoes, broccoli, asparagus, asparagus, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
“It’s quite a variety,” the 48-year-old said. Crosby was sentenced in November 2002 for murder, possession of drugs, and weapon under disability.
RiCI donates all the food to charities in the Mansfield area and they hope to produce 2,000 pounds of food this season, which runs from March to October.
Challenges to teaching prisoners
There are some unique challenges when it comes to teaching incarcerated people.
Each student has varied education backgrounds.
“Everybody has bits and pieces, so you have to find the gaps that they’re missing and then work with them to overcome those gaps,” said Joel Morrow, a teacher at Hope Valley who was awarded the Outstanding Adult Educator Award for the State of Ohio.
“A lot of people had failures in the school system,” Morrow said. “So they have to learn to believe in themselves and believe in the system.”
Some of the men don’t have computer skills, said Lisa Poff, the drafting teacher at Hope Valley.
“The world is not as forgiving as it needs to be sometimes, but we try to get them all the skills that get them ready to be able to do that,” she said.
When Bass gets out of prison, he wants to get his master’s degree and teach in correctional education.
“I feel that’s probably where I’ll be most effective in inspiring guys, especially so they can see someone that has already done it,” he said.