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Inside education

Incarcerated students at Dick Conner Correctional Center celebrate graduation



Graduates of TCC’s Second Chance program

On July 20, inmates at Dick Conner Correctional Center changed out of their gray prison uniforms and into royal blue caps and gowns. It was graduation day. Fifty-eight men earned workplace certificates and one earned an associate degree—all from Tulsa Community College. Family members and TCC staff were in the audience.

Since its inauguration in 2007, 500 inmates have participated in TCC’s Corrections Education Program. A joint effort between TCC donors and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the program gives incarcerated women and men practical educational opportunities to learn skills to prepare them for life after prison.

In 2016, TCC became one of 67 schools to partner with Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which provides funding to incarcerated students for postsecondary education. Already, benefits are evident: the recidivism rate for inmates who pursued education through TCC’s programs is 5 percent, while the state average is above 20 percent.

At the ceremony, TCC President Leigh B. Goodson, DCCC Warden Janet Dowling, and District 11 Representative Earl Sears all showed enthusiasm for the program’s success and encouraged the graduates.

The commencement speaker was Jeff Henderson, who was arrested in 1996 for distributing narcotics in California and later became a professional chef and host of the cooking show “Flip My Food.” Today, he visits prisons to tell his story.

Students walked across the stage, President Goodson conferred upon them their degrees, and they switched their tassels from the right to left. Signaling the ceremony’s end, “Pomp and Circumstance” sounded from the chapel’s electronic keyboard.

Cody Zimmer, who was convicted of first-degree manslaughter in 2013, transferred to DCCC two years ago. He received his Business User Certificate and his Landscaping Specialist Certificate at the ceremony. (Most certificates are earned with approximately 60 credit hours, and are a step toward earning an associate degree.)

“It’s been amazing,” Zimmer said. “It’s really great. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections doesn’t have a whole lot of programs, or anything to promote that you’re not coming back. So, things like Tulsa Community College are really a blessing here.”

Zimmer said he wants to earn an associate degree before his release, and then continue his education on the outside.

“If you don’t change the mindset these degrees and certificates don’t mean nothing,” Henderson said. “You become what you learn, you become what you read and experience. Life in here, you have to act that out—this is the training ground for when you get out.”

TCC not only aims to help those behind bars, but correctional officers as well. In conjunction with the Tulsa County Sherriff’s Office, a new Corrections Certificate was recently announced. The course teaches assistance and human services to individuals who work in correctional facilities or prisons.

Across three facilities—DCCC, Turley Women’s Correctional Center, and the Family and Children’s Services Women in Recovery—students in TCC’s Second Chance program have earned 386 certificates and 17 associates degrees. Last year at DCCC, eight men were awarded certificates, whereas 58 were awarded this year.

For more from Mason, read his roundup of fall classes for adults.

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Incarcerated students at Dick Conner Correctional Center celebrate graduation