CAVU Impact Partner: 'Prison to PostSecondary Education" Program Transforms Student

CAVU enthusiastically supports the Vera Institute of Justice in our shared commitment to strengthening communities and building an equitable American society through the transformation of our justice system. Vera researches, tests, and scales innovative solutions to end the overcriminalization and mass incarceration of people of color, immigrants, and people experiencing poverty. Below is one of the many success stories that inspire us to support Vera's work.

This fall, Jessica Henry joined the millions of people starting school again. She’s set to graduate in the spring, with a bachelor’s degree in social work and a double minor in business and psychology.

But her experience in classrooms on Spring Arbor University’s campus in Michigan is vastly different from where she was when she started college. In 2017, Jessica received an associate degree in general studies from Jackson College while incarcerated at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Pittsfield Township, Michigan. By the time she completed her sentence in 2020, she’d already earned two more associate degrees, one in arts and applied science and another in business administration.

Jessica is one of more than 9,000 students who have earned credentials through the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (SCP) since it launched in 2016. Through the program, the U.S. Department of Education has provided need-based financial aid in the form of Pell Grants to students in state and federal prisons. Vera provides technical assistance to the participating colleges and corrections departments including facilitating strategic planning to develop statewide plans for college in prison, helping states apply a race equity lens to their college in prison programs, and hosting an annual convening of the Second Chance Pell partners.

Research underscores the value of providing higher educational opportunities for people in prison—and its benefits extend to others. Postsecondary education programs help reduce violence behind bars, leading to safer conditions for staff and incarcerated people. Additionally, people who pursue these educational opportunities are also better positioned to secure well- paying jobs when they return home, which benefits their families and communities.

Providing postsecondary education in prison is also an investment in public safety. People who have participated in these programs have 48 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who have not. Lower reincarceration rates can cut the cost of state prison spending nationally by hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

These days, while pursuing her bachelor’s degree, Jessica volunteers with Nation Outside, a grassroots organization in Michigan that pushes for fair access to housing, employment, and voting for people involved with the criminal legal system. She also mentors formerly incarcerated people and young adults who were in foster care and serves as a residential manager at SOAR Café and Farms, a nonprofit that serves women survivors of human trafficking, sexual abuse, and trauma. Next year, she will begin pursuing a master’s degree in social work.

“Everything I’m doing is something I love,” Jessica said. “I had been through so many things in my life—juvenile delinquency, foster care, teen pregnancy, addiction, rehab, therapy, prison, jail, probation, parole. And I’m like, ‘Why did I go through all this?’ And now I know why. It’s because I can help those who are struggling or going through similar things . . . to make changes one step at a time.” -Jessica Henry