From Incarceration To The Classroom

Photo provided by Georgia Department of Corrections

Access to education is a human right that could mean the difference between a bright future, or a limited constrained life. The Georgia State University Prison Education Program gives that right back to its incarcerated students.

The GSUPEP is a nonprofit program headquartered out of Georgia State University’s Perimeter College. The program aims to provide college educations to incarcerated people in Georgia and assists formerly incarcerated people in reentering society.

The program started in 2016 with an initial cohort of 15 students from a prison in Buford, GA. Since then, the program has been implemented in three facilities, providing more than 100 students with undergraduate classes.

The program held its first graduation last spring, graduating nine students. The GSUPEP held another graduation this past December where three of the program’s graduates received their associated degrees in general studies.

“When we did that graduation, just seeing those students stand up and them getting honors was nice,” shared Patrick Lee Rodriguez, the program’s director. “It was the first time a USG school had conferred a degree in over 20 years in a prison.”

Rodriguez, a former inmate turned education activist, and his team have worked to create opportunities for the program’s incarcerated students. Their efforts have helped remove some of the barriers between people in prison and education. Through their work, they have gotten the program’s students eligible for Pell grants through the Second Chance Pell program.

“Most of our students are Pell eligible, meaning that they actually receive Pell grants,” said Rodriguez. “For those students who aren’t eligible, remember the $300,000 grant. That money goes towards scholarships for some of those students.”

The $300,000 grant in question was awarded to the program by The Georgia Power Foundation in 2023. Since receiving the three-year grant, the program has grown, forming a new instructional program at the United States Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, as well as expanding its existing courses.

As far as where the program currently stands, because of limitations on the number of classes that can be held at one time, another graduation isn’t planned until 2026. However, the program is still running, providing courses like Biology and English 1102 to its students.

“I’m not going to lie, It’s difficult work, but there is always a level of hope,” said Rodriguez. “These students are keeping up their GPAs, they’re working hard and they’re balancing a traumatic experience at the same time. They might go to class once or twice a week, but at the same time once they’re done with class they’re living in prison”.

Despite these challenges, Rodriguez, the program’s site coordinators, faculty and students are excited to continue providing classes and degrees to its students through the GSUPEP.

“Our students show a level of resilience that is unprecedented,” said Rodriguez.“It reminded me why we go to school, why we seek education and why that’s so important.”