Future uncertain for Obama-era initiative funding prison education programs

Posted at 6:40 AM, Jul 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-27 14:28:37-04

From a felony to a college degree, an Obama-era initiative has let thousands of inmates get a higher education. For the first time in two decades, the pilot program gave inmates access to financial aid to take courses at colleges like Ashland University.

Long before he was "inmate Washington" and donned a blue collar, Waymann Washington was a blue collar boy from steel valley's Youngstown. 

"When my father got laid off from the steel mill it kind of deterred me from working for any steel mill, because I was afraid of that," said Washington.

That fear drove him to make a series of life decisions that 40 years later landed him at the Richland Correctional Facility. 

"When I got my sentence first thing that came to my mind was 'man that is a long time'" said Washington.

In 2012, Washington was handed a 6-year sentence for drug trafficking. It was then he made one more choice that would once again shape his life—to get an education.

"The first 2 years I was really going hard, four classes a semester, five classes a semester but there was no funding for an actual degree," said Washington.

The government cut financial aid to inmates in correctional education programs in 1994. Two years ago the Obama administration put in place the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. 

"So really these students now have the opportunity like any student who would qualify for a Pell Grant to receive that funding," said Ashland University President Carlos Campo.

Ashland University has the largest correctional educational program in the country.  

"And I think we are the only institution in the country that actually allows students for 18 months after their parole to continue to work with them" added Campo.

But once again the future remains uncertain for the Obama-era program, which will expire during Trump's presidency.

"It is still a pilot program so it is subject to review and funding," said Campo.

And while Campo anticipates the program will remain in place at least until Trump's first term, the university isn't taking any chances. 

"We are making a commitment to these students and even if the Pell ESI is cut we are going to make sure that everyone who is in a current class at Ashland gets to complete those courses," said Campo.

For Washington, that isn't the only deadline he is up against. "There is going to come a point in time where I am going to walk out those gates," said Washington.

Washington is set to be released in August of 2018. But is a few months away from earning his associates degree.

While most of Ashland's incarcerated students live in Ohio, they also offer programs in prisons in five other states.