AUGUSTA — Daniel Porter never envisioned wanting to be any type of educator.

But after taking college courses to gain his bachelor’s degree while incarcerated at the Maine State Prison, he had new goals in mind.

Daniel Porter, 33, is in prison Thursday, serving a 16-year sentence for manslaughter. He is taking classes to gain a college degree as part of the Prison Education Partnership Program through the University of Maine at Augusta. Photo courtesy of James Hancox

“If you aren’t a little embarrassed by your goals, I guess they aren’t big enough,” Porter said. “I’m a little embarrassed, and there is part of me that is leaning in that direction, and maybe some day … It’s amazing to see people’s lightbulbs turn on.”

Porter, 33, who is serving a 16-year sentence for manslaughter, was also partially referring to the other residents at the correctional center who, like him, are taking classes to gain their college degree as part of the Prison Education Partnership Program through the University of Maine at Augusta.

The Prison Education Partnership Program recently got a financial boost when it was awarded a $940,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The funds will pay for the program’s expansion, which allows Maine Department of Corrections residents the ability to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, depending on the length of their sentence.

More than 130 people have graduated from The Prison Education Partnership Program since it started 15 years ago, officials said.

Porter described conversations in the correctional center going from where residents can purchase drugs or the past crimes they committed, to talking about books they were reading in class and having philosophical discussions.

Porter, who describes himself as “an English nerd,” has read more than 200 books and taught three courses at the prison.

When he first got to prison in 2013, he started reading all of “the classics.” His favorite author is Virginia Woolf, and his favorite book is “Wanderer” by Henry David Thoreau.

“I had seen a couple of articles, I think on ’60 Minutes,’ of people that completed their degrees in prison and what I would call a real-life success story,” Porter said. “The part that it could be possible on my end, I waned to do everything to ensure that.”

Advocates of the program say a college education not only reduces the recidivism rate for the state, but graduates of the program can be connected to a network in the future to help them find a job upon their release.

Through some programs in the minimum security facilities, like the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center, people are able to complete internships and get their foot in the door before release. Deborah Meehan, the executive director of UMA’s off-campus centers, also said that the state of Maine has gotten rid of the “criminal history” question on some job applications.

“We have granted over 140 degrees and we have a recidivism rate of less than 5%,”said Meehan. “That’s compared to 67% at the state level. One of the commissioners said, ‘If they go to the college program, they don’t come back.'”

The prison education program started in 2006 at the urging of the late Doris Buffett. Buffet told Meehan the program needed to exist, and she granted it seed money to get started. Her funding lasted until 2016, when UMA turned to federal funding to pay for the program.

As a result of the Mellon grant, the program will be able to hire a director, and expand its humanities programs and courses.

“With the Mellon grant we will be able to hire a director of the prison partnership that can focus all their time on the project, committed to working with the (Department of Corrections) facility and people who are either in, on partial release, or have already left and been affected by the justice system, that’s a big part,” said Greg Fahy, dean of UMA’s College of Arts and Science.

Most Maine Department of Corrections residents earn a liberal studies degree because of the versatility of what classes can look like. Fahy said degrees that are lab-based, like biology, can be difficult to translate into the correctional facility classroom — and in the virtual classroom that has taken place over Zoom since the pandemic started.

There are around 100 students this spring enrolled in the program, and in the fall, there were 83 students. Most DOC residents pay for the program through federal Pell funds. Meehan said that UMA is able to offer “generous” discounts.

Fahey said that the DOC residents start to identify with being a student and said that through this, it can change the culture of the correctional facility.

“They form a connection with the people in the program and value that level of education,” he said. “There is a strong cohort group that has an effect on the population itself. We are changing individual lives and the culture of the facility in significant ways.”‘

Susan Bennett-Armistead, associate professor of literacy at the University of Maine, said that with her experience teaching reading and writing workshops in the Penobscot County Jail, some women had been past students, in addition to being moms or even teachers before being in the correctional facility.

“These women really just had their worst day ever, and we want to move past that — we mostly don’t care about that,” she said. “We want them to move forward. Some of these women (in the program) have not had someone say to them, ‘What do you want to do in your life?'”

Bennett-Armistead worked alongside William Dee Nichols, professor in literacy at the University of Maine, in teaching mostly women DOC residents.

Both educators said that the power of completing the class, or having a certificate, can be very meaningful and could “transform” a person if they were ready to take on the task of education.

“It’s the power of what these educational opportunities provide,” Nichols said. “They can show it (certificate or degree) to loved ones and show that they are trying to change.”

The Mellon grant has also enabled the Prison Education Partnership Program to purchase 180 student laptops and what Meehan and Fahy call, “COVID carts,” to help facilitate a virtual classroom. Fahy said the grant specifically asked how COVID has impacted classroom learning and the biggest challenge was not being able to go into the correctional faculties in order to abide by coronavirus guidelines.

Porter said the funding will not only help the program’s technology and access to classes, but will help the residents become students.

“If you can take specific classes geared toward your interest, you can do much better,” he said. “We are thankful for what we can get.”

Porter said that he doesn’t know his favorite class, but that he enjoys ethics and public speaking. He teaches a creative writing class, a literary analysis class and a course on public speaking to the residents at the facility.

The classes meet one to two times a week and, according to Porter, the first step is to determine where the students stand education-wise. He describes himself as having “no tolerance to discrimination” that may come through the class, especially in his public speaking class where more background information is involved from the residents.

“We go around and they introduce themselves and get comfortable,” he said. “That little line in the beginning is the trial round and then they go up to the pedestal. We build on it each week. Soon, a majority of them are saying a 10-minute speech from memory and we have guest speakers come in.

“I can see their confidence grow and it makes me wonder what they could have been if they had that before.”

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