Ronald Thomas, 66, has been incarcerated since 2008. Shortly after he entered prison, he began taking high school-level classes. When the teachers saw Thomas calm the other students down after they became rowdy, they encouraged him to become a tutor for other inmates.
When he learned of the Transformation and Re-entry through Education and Community (TREC) program — which allows individuals to obtain a college degree while incarcerated, he didn’t hesitate to sign up.
“I’ve helped so many others, when would I be able to get me a college degree,” he said. “This came about and I said ‘I gotta have it.’”
On Tuesday, Thomas made it happen when he was one of 19 graduates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility – Lino Lakes state prison to receive a college degree. It was the largest graduation of its kind since 1994.
The TREC program was created in 2021 when faculty members at Minneapolis College and Metropolitan State University started working with officials at the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) to figure out how to build out the program. While incarcerated, individuals can take courses to get an Associates degree or certificate from Minneapolis College, and then decide to continue their studies and receive a bachelor’s degree from Metro State.
In addition to Lino Lakes, the program is offered to inmates at the facilities in Faribault and Shakopee.
College in prison programs aren’t a new idea, but they have had a bumpy ride. Programs like TREC ceased to exist in 1994 when legislation from Congress disallowed prisoners from being eligible for the federal Pell Grant, which is used by millions of low-income students nationwide to help pay for higher education. The colleges in the TREC program are Second Chance institutions, meaning they can provide financial help to incarcerated students before they’re reinstated as Pell-eligible.
The Second Chance Pell initiative was first established in 2015 by President Barack Obama. The program will be significantly expanded this summer when a new law spreading the program even more will take effect on July 1.
Ann Deiman-Thornton, the dean of education and public and human service at Minneapolis College, said the reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility is a big deal. Finding funding for these types of programs is difficult, with the DOC or outside philanthropic and private organizations having to foot the bill, but Pell reinstatement changes that.
“It takes a tremendous amount of work and resources, both from the DOC perspective as well as from the institution or colleges perspective,” she said. “The reinstatement of Pell is really going to be life-changing for a lot of people to be able to attend college and for the colleges to be able to fully fund the programs.”
Free or low-cost prison education has detractors: some argue against giving such an opportunity to incarcerated people when the barrier to accessing college is high for many without convictions.
But attitudes may be changing as increasing research suggests education within prison helps prevent people from returning. According to a report by the RAND Corporation, recidivism was 43% less likely among those who took part in an institution’s education programs.
“We know, as was pointed out, that if we’re interested in reducing risk of recidivism or reoffending and reincarceration, higher education is one of the key programs that is evidence-based,” said DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell. “So it pays dividends in the long haul.”
Schnell said when he was hired as commissioner, both Gov. Tim Walz and First Lady Gwen Walz emphasized higher education in prison as a top priority.
“It’s always nice to be able to celebrate these graduations because this was really one of the benchmark goals coming into this administration,” he said.
After receiving his associates degree in philosophy from Minneapolis College, Thomas said he hopes to continue on to earn a four-year degree. He said he tells everyone he meets inside to do as he did and join the program, and when they ask why he’s doing it despite his age, he tells them “as long as you live, you need to learn.”
“By getting your education it gives you a chance to survive, and gives you the opportunity to be successful when you get out,” he said. “When people call your name they won’t be called for you to get on the ground, they’ll call your name to ask you for assistance or to come work for your company.”