How classes in a Virginia prison are prepping offenders for life after release

JARRATT, Va. (WRIC) — Ubaydah Baaith has been incarcerated for the better part of two decades. He’s preparing for release next year.

When he gets out, he wants to pursue a career in computer graphics and design. He’s been studying the art while behind bars at Greensville Correctional Center.

It’s one of the five career and technical education courses offered to offenders in Virginia prisons. They can receive college credit for the courses recommended by the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT).

“To be afforded this opportunity to learn graphic design, to implement graphic design and to continue our education within this program, it’s just everything to us,” he said. “Everything.”

The Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) is the only correctional entity in the nation to hold ACE CREDIT recommendations. In addition to computer graphics and design, offenders can also take business software applications, computer aided drafting, introduction to computers and print production.

Since its implementation in 2014, the commonwealth has paid about $35,000 for 1,733 students to complete programs. The students don’t pay a dime.

Cleon Ross said it’s worth the investment.

Ross is assistant superintendent for career and technical education for VDOC. He said, without ACE funding, the same level of education would cost nearly $1.5 million. Maintaining work can be nearly priceless.

“Within the first couple of months of offenders being released, having a job that’s a well-paying job that they can actually sustain a life for themselves and their families is a great opportunity for them to keep them out and contributing to society,” he said.

Tanya Ryan is an instructor at Sussex II State Prison. She has been there for seven years, focusing on communication arts and design. She said the college course program is like a second chance for inmates.

“Our goal is to send them home with everything they need to have a successful life,” said Ryan. “To get that roof over their head, to get a paycheck in their pocket and to have a good life.”

Erin Hancock teaches the same course at Greensville. Her class has a wait list.

She said one of her motivations is that 90 percent of the offender population will return to society.

“We want them to be equipped and ready so that they can not only better their own lives and the lives of their families, but also contribute to whatever community they are returned to,” she said.

Hancock said her four-hour class is often as escape for prisoners.

“The exposure in and of itself is a reward for them. To be able to see that they’re not stuck here, that they still have a connection to the outside world,” she said. “They’re building skill sets in lots of different office equipment and the technology so that when they do leave here, it’s not like they’ve been gone for forever.”

Maurice Savage is one of Hancock’s teacher’s aides at Greensville. He has been incarcerated for 11 years.

“This class has given me a tool that I can go out and feed my family with — without doing anything illegal. I could start my own business or work for a company. It just puts me in a better position overall,” he said. “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Leshawn Jones is another teacher’s aide. After taking Hancock’s class, he is confident about his future — and not returning to the system.

“When I was home the first time, every time I got a job it was something that I didn’t really love to do so I always winded up quitting and going back to my old ways. But with this, it gave me a passion.”

Student Phil Clayborne said the graphics design course has helped him in more ways than just learning the trade.

He has learned to become less reactionary.

“When you think outside the box, you start to see things differently, you start to respond differently, you start to think about yourself as opposed to the consequences before you react and how you treat other people,” he said.

Right now, the students take orders for their designs from the department and other state employees.
They can create anything from posters to brochures, logos to business cards.

As Baaith nears his release, he wants to continue that work outside the confines of prison. He said he is hooked on the feeling he gets inspiring people with his designs.

“When a customer comes in here for something as simple as a wedding invitation or they need invitations for a graduation or a birthday party, when you get to see their faces and get to see that you’ve actually changed them in that moment, to apply something that special to their lives that they’ll have forever, it’s just an amazing feeling,” he said.

Baaith will walk away from the correctional center with not only a new skill but also gratitude.

“We understand that this right here is not an obligation that they have to give us, but it’s a privilege,” he said. “So we’re definitely grateful.”

Last year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Virginia has the lowest recidivism rate in the country.