Life before prison was bleak for Marc Trice, an inmate at the maximum security Oregon State Penitentiary.
From a young age, Trice didn’t believe in himself. He dropped out of school in his teens, began participating in what he described as self-destructive behavior, and at the age of 15 he was arrested and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.
“Freedom for a lot of us just comes from being free on the inside,” said Trice. “I’ve been locked up since I was 15. I’m 36 now, and at this point I’m more free now than before I was in prison.”
College Inside is a program primarily funded by philanthropists and Chemeketa Community College that gives inmates the chance to take college level courses and earn a two-year degree that can be used toward a four-year program at a university once they’re released from prison.
For incarcerated students attending the College Inside program, Trice’s story is not unique.
Josh Cain said he took freedom and life for granted before coming to prison. He said the program opened his eyes to a new way of living.
“It made me recognize humanity as a greater thing. A lot of what brings people to prison is dehumanization … we allow ourselves to participate in self-destructive behaviors,” said Cain. “In prison, that cycle continues. Being incarcerated is a dehumanizing process. But being part of College Inside helps reinvest in yourself and to be a whole person again.”
Michelle McCormick has been a teacher for 18 years. She said Oregon’s College Inside program boasts one of the lowest rates of recidivism in the nation at just 2.5 percent.
Popular classes include math, writing, U.S. history and second language courses.
“The students are hungry to learn, they’re so engaged,” McCormick explained. “It’s the best teaching I get to do. You have to come in here with the top of your game.”
The average overall GPA for College Inside is 3.5.
Students said conflicts arise often in prison, whether it be from talking back to a staff member or bumping into the wrong person in line. If something goes wrong, their educational opportunities could be taken away from them in the blink of an eye.
“I never learned how to communicate until prison, as funny as that sounds,” Bob Goggin explained. “The first instinct to me was violence.
Goggin is an inmate who had a troubled childhood and grew up with a lot of pent up anger, which he released in the form of violence. He was sentenced to prison for conspiracy to commit murder.
“You have to make that realization that ‘I’ve gotta change, and I gotta realize that I’m losing everything if I don’t.’ You’re either gonna become a better criminal or a better man while you’re here,” Goggin said.
Like Goggin, the rest of these men in College Inside needed something to help bring plans for changing their lives to fruition. And the education program has offered the solution.
Francisco Hernandez dropped out of school in 9th grade. He said that when he was arrested, he didn’t even know how to write or turn on a computer.
“My vision of success was drug dealing and making it on the streets. Now, this program has completely changed my life and given me hope that I can leave my past behind,” said Hernandez. “If people can’t change, then what hope is there in this world?”
Hernandez said the program has even influenced his family. When he began College Inside, his son was a freshman in high school and was failing almost all of his classes. The program showed him the power of education and he instilled that in his son every time they spoke on the phone.
“His last report card he got As, a couple Bs and a C, and I’m so proud of him,” Hernandez said. “He graduated high school, something I never did, and will begin college this fall.”’
John Cain and Marc Thrice both graduated from College Inside since appearing on Think Out Loud. Thrice has since been released from prison and works in Portland.