Once incarcerated, Georgian works to expand education for those in prison

Patrick Rodriguez wanted to be the first person in his family to go to college. Only drugs, five arrests, and 52 months in prison got in his way.

Today, Rodriguez hopes his rebound will remind people in prison and the newly released of what’s possible. And that includes obtaining a college degree, which can elevate a person’s lifetime earnings and reduce the prison recidivism rate.

“So many people doubt that we can make progress in the state of Georgia,” said Rodriguez, 31, co-executive director of Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prison. “If I am not living proof of progress, then I don’t know what is.”

In 2012, Rodriguez began using drugs – including marijuana and cocaine – while making his first go at Kennesaw State University. Within months, he also was selling them. A series of arrests followed, and, in 2016, the then-college dropout was charged with drug trafficking and threatened with a 30-year sentence, including at least 10 behind bars.

“It wasn’t until then that I started understanding the gravity of what I was doing,” Rodriguez said.

The charges against him and his sentence were ultimately reduced. But he lost five or six years of his life between jail and prison.

“I was alive, but I could only live in the past,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t want to live in the present, and I wasn’t able to image the future.”

While serving his sentence, he took a three-credit course from Berry College that reignited his desire to pursue a college degree. Once he was released from prison in 2019, he reapplied to Kennesaw State. This time, he had to go through extra hurdles – writing a lengthy essay and gathering letters of recommendation – because of his criminal past.

Rodriguez is passionate that other people in prison should have the same opportunities he had for higher education. Around 2020, he paired up with a group that included college and university representatives, as well as leaders in Georgia and around the country who had been incarcerated. Together, they created the nonprofit Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prison.

In 2021, Rodriguez was named its co-executive director. To fellow board members, he was the obvious choice, said Thomas Fabisiak, the group’s other co-executive director and director for the last seven years of Life University’s degree programs for people incarcerated in Georgia.

Rodriguez “was already doing the work,” Fabisiak said.

“He’s just really creative, determined and driven and has brought a lot to the coalition,” Fabisiak said. “And it’s all rooted in care for people who are experiencing what he’s experienced.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Rodriguez is the nonprofit’s public face and has been instrumental in the organization raising $2 million in the last 30 months to help expand access to higher education for people who are or have been in prison. He’s worked the halls of the state Capitol, discussing with lawmakers the value of higher education for people affected by the prison system.

The Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) provides extensive educational programming inside state prisons, including nondegree postsecondary career and technical education, as well as the GED program. The state Department of Corrections also has actively sought to bring in more postsecondary programming, Rodriguez said. Currently, Life University, Georgia State University, Brewton-Parker College, Truett McConnell University, and the University of West Georgia are the only Georgia-based colleges that offer accredited degree programs in liberal arts inside state prison facilities, said Fabisiak.

These college programs have turned out 59 graduates since a ban was placed in 1994 on people in prison receiving Pell grants, only a fraction of the estimated 47,000 people in Georgia prisons, he said.

Coalition members are trying to convince more of the state’s colleges and universities to become involved. They’re hoping colleges will have a greater incentive to participate now that a ban imposed in 1994 is being lifted on Pell grants for people in prison, Fabisiak said.

The coalition touts data showing college can change the life trajectory of people in prison, including the likelihood that they’ll be sent back. The Georgia Department of Corrections estimates that about 26% of people in prison will be reconvicted within three years of their release. The recidivism rate for people in prison who participate in college degree programs, college prep, and noncredit programs is less than 5%, and zero for participants in the college degree program, Fabisiak said.

“The goal for us is every single person who is impacted by the prison system has the ability and the capability to go to college,” he said. “We want to see that gap between the general population’s college completion rate and the prison system’s to shrink.”

A college education translates into higher earnings, employability and less recidivism, “and it’s good for the graduate’s communities, neighbors and children,” Fabisiak said.

Rodriguez, who graduated from Kennesaw State in 2020 with a bachelor’s in organizational communication, heads Georgia State University’s program for people in prison.

On May 5, Rodriguez said he had “my most meaningful experience.”

He spoke at graduation at Walker State Prison in rural northwest Georgia. All nine graduates received associate degrees from Georgia State’s Perimeter College and were recognized for completing their programs with high or highest honors.

“When I went into that prison, I didn’t go back in as a formerly incarcerated prisoner, I went back as director of a program that confers degrees,” he said. “I was only home for about 40 months at the time. I was still on parole.”

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