Tennessee has wide disparities in its prison education programs. Can new Pell grants help?

In a bright yellow library behind the barbed wire gates at Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility in Middle Tennessee, Willetta Grady, the prison librarian, shows off a row of popular books.

The section includes easy reading like the “Harry Potter” and “Divergent” series, since most of the men who come into her library read at around a third grade level, said Grady, a former kindergarten teacher. 

“Lots of them just slipped through the cracks,” she said. “They were passed on from grade to grade.”

Five years ago when Grady first arrived at Trousdale, the library contained mostly books about Great Britain donated from a British publishing company. She’s since doubled the library’s collection from 6,000 to more than 12,000 books, ranging from popular nonfiction to classics like Shakespeare and John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl.”

Willetta Grady, the prison librarian at Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility in Hartsville, Tenn., has more than doubled the size of the library since she started there five years ago.

When she’s not organizing shelves, she’s helping inmates improve their reading skills and hand delivering books to the men in solitary confinement.

Education is critical since 95% of the men will be released back into the community once they’ve served their time, Grady said.

“They have a lot of catching up to do if they want to continue their education when they get out into the real world again.”

Multiple studies have shown that education behind bars is key to reducing recidivism, but college degree programs remain out of reach for many of the more than 20,000 people in the state’s prison system.

Tennessee does offer associate degree programs in all of its state-run prisons and bachelor’s degrees in three facilities, in partnerships with local colleges and universities.

But Trousdale, run by the private prison company CoreCivic, does not have any higher education programs for its more than 2,000 inmates. 

But Grady said she’s hoping that will soon change with the new availability of Pell Grants for students in prisons. The program, which went into effect in July, means hundreds of thousands of people behind bars can now use federal aid for college courses.

Tennessee is now working to expand education with federal funds, with the goal of eventually offering bachelor’s degrees at all of its 11 state-run prisons, said Laura Ferguson-Mimms, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative, a nonprofit that coordinates the programs. 

“What this means for us is this incredible opportunity for our incarcerated brothers and sisters to pursue bachelor’s degrees,” she said. “It’s a game changer.”

Expanding education 

Willetta Grady walks through a gate at Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility, where she works as the librarian, in Hartsville, Tenn., on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023.

Tennessee’s recidivism rates are roughly 46%, meaning about half of all people released from jail or prison will return within three years.

But education can improve that number. A 2018 study from the RAND Corporation, funded by the federal Department of Justice, found people who participated in education programs while behind bars were 48% less likely to reoffend within three years. RAND also found that for every $1 invested in prison education programs, $4 to $5 are saved on re-incarceration costs.

The Pell Grant was previously available to incarcerated people until 1994 when Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which revoked eligibility.

Margaret diZerega, managing director of initiatives at the Vera Institute of Justice, said the new initiative will give states the opportunity to partner with more colleges and universities for better quality programs.

DiZerega said the grant is also available for those serving life without parole or awaiting the death penalty. While most will never get a chance to use their education on the outside, they can serve as tutors for others who are incarcerated, she said.

But many will still face challenges with access, including limited classroom space and technology, she said.  

And programs vary by state, she said, with some states coordinating better than others.

Tennessee has traditionally had good coordination with the various groups and nonprofits, DiZerega added. 

Among the various community colleges and other schools, the state works with the private Christian universities Belmont and Lipscomb for bachelor’s degree programs. The degrees are mostly in business administration, but Ferguson-Mimms said the Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative is working with the Tennessee Department of Correction to offer liberal arts degrees. 

Ferguson-Mimms said the nonprofit has received additional state funding this year to coordinate the new Pell Grant process with colleges and universities. 

She said universities will need federal and state approval to participate in the program. 

The state provides funding for associate degree programs for its prisons but it does not fund bachelor’s degree programs, she said.

Ferguson-Mimms said that the Higher Education in Prison Initiative uses its own resources for bachelor’s programs and that funding has long been a challenge.

From 2017 to 2022, just 13 bachelor’s degrees were awarded to people in state prisons, according to TDOC.

Number for associate degrees is higher, with 43 awarded so far this year, up from 24 in 2022 and 14 in 2021.

“With the Pell Grant it frees up our resources so we can now spend our funds on expanding programs,” Ferguson-Mimms said.

The Brentwood-based CoreCivic, one of the nation’s largest private companies, offers higher education programs in 12 of its facilities in other states, but for now, it does not offer any bachelor’s or associate degree programs in its four Tennessee facilities due to technology challenges, the company said in a statement. 

The only college-level course is a religious studies program at South Central Correctional Facility in Middle Tennessee presented by the Alabama-based Samford University.

But CoreCivic said it has been in talks this year to expand education in Tennessee. And while it doesn’t yet offer higher education programs, it does offer about two dozen certificate programs, including for trades like carpentry and plumbing, and for a computer coding course called Persevere.

A controversial for-profit prison operator, CoreCivic has faced a barrage of lawsuits, audits and state fines over the years for issues including understaffing and inmate deaths.

Trousdale Turner, a medium security men’s facility where Grady works, has seen lawsuits and lockdowns this year following violent inmate deaths and attacks on correctional officers.

CoreCivic has said it has worked to hire more staff with additional incentives.

Building a library 

Willetta Grady, the prison librarian, discusses her work at Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility in Hartsville, Tenn., Monday, Aug. 14, 2023.

Behind the walls at Trousdale, Grady, 67, is a beloved staffer known by the men as “Ms. Grady” or “Ms. G.”

“The people that come into the library want to better themselves,” she said. “And that makes a big difference.”

In her library with colorful paper butterflies and a green book mural painted by one of the men, Grady recalled how she helped one man in his 50s who couldn’t read past a kindergarten level. 

“We were able to bring him up a few grades before he was paroled,” she said.

Grady got her start in education as an elementary school teacher but said it wasn’t for her, so she went back to school for her master’s degree in library sciences. 

Grady decided to apply for a job as a contract librarian in correctional facilities. On her first day at the library in the Metro Nashville Sheriff’s Department jail, Grady said she sat in her car in the parking lot, apprehensive at first, before deciding that this was part of her calling.

“It’s not just a job,” she said. “We librarians are professionals and we strive to help people in any setting.”

At Trousdale, Grady made it her mission to improve the library’s limited selection.

She started reaching out to local libraries, schools and nonprofits for donations and was a frequent visitor to the popular McKay’s used bookstore in Nashville. Books poured in by the thousands.

The city of Brentwood sent a large number of reference books, while the Westmoreland Public Library donated an encyclopedia set. The clerks at the U.S. District court in Nashville donated a large selection of federal law books.

For her work, Grady was honored this year with an Exceptional Service Award from the American Library Association. 

While Trousdale lacks higher education programs, Grady said it’s rewarding for her to at least help to improve reading skills.

“They can do something here to better themselves,” she said. “They go home and they’re excited to start a new life.”

Reach Kelly Puente at kpuente@tennessean.com.

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