Within the walls of the Sampson County Correctional Facility, a team of Campbell professors is changing lives, providing hope to incarcerated students
By Billy Liggett
It’s the final day of English 102 in a semester marred by a global pandemic, a long postponement of classes and a switch to learning via Zoom. But “Anthony” is thankful for the moment — at his desk, surrounded by his classmates and listening to Dr. Sherry Truffin discuss character development in the drama Water by the Spoonful.
It’s the only time of the week, he says, that he doesn’t feel like he’s in prison.
Anthony (he and other students will go by pseudonyms) is an inmate at the Sampson County Correctional Facility in Clinton. He and 15 others were chosen to be the first cohort of students in the prison’s education program launched by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, which brought in Campbell University in the fall of 2019.
“This is our second chance,” Anthony shares with his class. “Character-wise and education-wise, we are really striving to do better. But there are other inmates who put us through adversity, who don’t believe rehabilitation is possible. Some resent us for getting this for free, when their kids can’t get into college and can’t afford tuition. They despise us and antagonize us. Some will do anything they can to take it from us.
“But there are people who are in it because they want to see change. And it means a lot to us on a very personal level.”
The testimony brings a smile to Truffin’s face, framed in a Zoom window after COVID-19 (a much more serious issue in correctional facilities throughout the country) forced previous face-to-face interaction to become remote learning. Truffin helped usher in Campbell’s involvement in the program in fall 2019 when Executive Vice President Dr. John Roberson approached her about teaching English 101 and 102. Truffin, who has a sister who was formerly incarcerated, says the request felt like a calling to her.
“I’m an Episcopalian, and the church has a standard liturgy, the Prayers of the People, where we pray for families, communities, leaders of nations, prisoners and captives and those who remember and care for them,” she says. “Here was an opportunity to be one of those people, so it definitely appealed to me.”
Truffin joined a team of four from Campbell — Roberson (who spearheaded Campbell’s involvement) teaching Christianity 125, Dr. Gary Taylor teaching Psychology 222 and Dr. Rick Smith, Adult & Online Education’s director at the Sampson facility. Since the students weren’t allowed internet access and had limited access to laptops, the weekly three-hour classes last fall were all in person — at first an intimidating idea for Truffin, who didn’t know what to expect when she signed on.
She made it a point not to ask her students why they were incarcerated — Sampson is a medium security prison with average sentencing (among the students) around six to seven years — knowing that would take away from her purpose, Truffin says, which is to treat the men like students.
“They’re in a very depersonalized, dehumanized environment,” she says. “They’re living in an atmosphere of relentless negativity. I don’t need to know their backgrounds, because I know now they’re exceptionally motivated, exceptionally hard working and very aware that access to a program like this is a privilege. They want to do well and become role models for their children. They want better futures for their families. They want to encourage their kids to go to college someday, and if they can complete a degree while they’re incarcerated, that’s a good step.”
NOTHING LESS THAN AMAZING
Roberson is passionate about Campbell’s involvement in the program and points to the University’s mission — to educate students who are prepared for purposeful lives and meaningful service and to serve underserved populations — to justify that involvement.
The statistics of those who learn while incarcerated, he says, speak for themselves.
According to a 2018 Department of Justice study, two thirds of the nation’s prisoners who were released in 2005 were arrested again within three years. Within five years, that number goes up to just over three fourths. And if you go up to nine years after release, an astounding five out of six inmates found themselves in a jail or prison again.
Give inmates an opportunity to earn a degree while in school, and those numbers change dramatically.
Citing studies released by the New York-based Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison initiative — which provides college education, life skills and reentry support for incarcerated men and women — the recidivism rate for the 700-plus alumni that program has served is less than 2 percent. Nationally, prisoners who earn a college degree while behind bars have a 19.1 percent recidivism rate — far higher than Hudson Link’s results, but also considerably lower than the national average.
The age range of the students in Campbell-run classes runs between 25 and 50, and two thirds of the men in the first cohort of students are minority. Roberson called the results of the first year “nothing less than amazing.”
“That’s an opinion shared by the prison’s warden, the prison’s staff and by Campbell professors involved in the initiative,” Roberson says. “While the primary goal of prison education is to graduate students who can become productive citizens, the secondary goal is for those students to have a positive impact on their own prison population. Sampson corrections leadership has already reported noticeable behavioral improvements in the students’ spheres of influence. And, frankly, this has happened much more quickly than anyone anticipated.”
He credits two foundations for their support in making the teaching initiative a reality. The Bob Barker Foundation — an arm of the Bob Barker Company and an organization created to prepare incarcerated individuals physically, spiritually and emotionally for successful reentry into society — was the “catalyst” in starting the conversation with Campbell University and provided early financial support for the research and feasibility of the program. The Sunshine Lady Foundation, Roberson says, gave generously to the program and provided the “lion’s share” of funding in its first year.
Dr. Rick Smith was named Adult & Online’s director at the Sampson County Correctional Facility after serving nearly 16 years before retiring with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety as a teacher, education administrator and director of education services. Before his role with Campbell, Smith says he observed first hand the positive effects an education can have on incarcerated men and women.
That said, he still had his concerns at the start of the Campbell-Sampson partnership. Many of the students, he says, were older and had not been in school for several years. Quickly, however, he saw they were “hungry” for instruction. During the first semester, he noticed the students’ effort while preparing for exams and was impressed with their determination.
“One day, several students walked in with piles of slips of paper,” Smith says. “They told me that they had run out of index cards and were cutting up envelopes to make flash cards for their tests. The hard work and devotion to their studies has paid off for the students in their grades.”
Fifteen students began the ASBS program at Sampson, and in the first two semesters, 12 of them earned Dean’s List recognition, and four students earned President’s List honors.
“I also saw the students pull together as a unit,” Smith adds. “Initially, the students knew very little about each other as many were from other correctional institutions. As the semester moved forward, different students began asking their peers for assistance in different areas. For example, one of the younger students was very knowledgeable about computers while many of the offenders had not accessed a computer in 10 or more years. Several students began assisting their peers when they needed computer guidance.”
Smith commended the staff at the Sampson facility for making the program a success, especially for continuing it through the hardships brought on by COVID-19. He also credited the faculty and staff at Campbell University, adding, “A member of the Sampson Correction leadership team told me that he had observed one of the Campbell instructional sessions, [and] the instructor was so knowledgeable about the subject and had the students so involved in the instruction that he understood the value and importance of this program.”
Roberson says he’s seen the impact Truffin has had on his students’ writing and reading comprehension abilities, calling their progress “extraordinary” under her tutelage.
MAKING A PATHWAY
Each student has his reasons for wanting to further their education. For “Corey,” it’s about keeping a promise he made to himself to stick with the program and earn a degree to prove to himself and his family that he can finish what he started.
“When I was younger,” he says, “there were a lot of things I was good at, but I never stuck with one particular thing. That’s the one thing I preach to younger kids now … find something you’re good at, stick with it and become great at it.”
The students know their success will mean success for future men and women, should the state choose to expand its initiative. That adds a weight of responsibility for young men like “William,” but he accepts that challenge.
“We’re doing something in this system that hasn’t been done before,” he says. “We’re making a pathway for people behind us, for people who may not have any other option … this may be their future. The best I can do and we can do is make this as smooth as possible. We’ll be the ones who hit the potholes and make sure the road is paved right. Our end result will mean better outcomes for others.”