Ashland University’s correctional education program changes lives


Ingrid Schmidt

Ashland University’s mission statement says that their education “provides a transformative learning experience, shaping graduates who work, serve and lead with integrity in their local, national, and global communities.”

This statement is especially true of AU’s correctional education program which has been changing the lives of offenders since 1964.

Ashland University has the largest and longest running postsecondary correctional education program in the United States according to Ashland University’s Interim Provost, Todd Marshall.

The program started at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield.  Funding from Pell Grants helped to supplement the program.  However, even after Pell funding was taken away from correctional education programs in the 1980s, Ashland University was one of the few Universities that kept their program going, according to Marshall.

When Pell Funding once again supported correctional education, Ashland University was able to expand their program even further.  

Now Ashland University serves over 1,000 incarcerated students every year.  The programs are offered to students both male and female adult offenders in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction as well as juvenile offenders in the Ohio Department of Youth Services.

According to Marshall, Ashland University’s program is offered in Ohio, West Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, Missouri, Washington D.C.

AU is a leader in bringing in technology to their correctional education programs.  Ashland University provides each student enrolled in the correctional education program with a 7” tablet with a heavy duty clear case and a clear keyboard.  “It’s clear so that they can’t hide any contraband,” Marshall said.

Marshall said that the equipment is built to last and approved by prison security. “If you took this [the tablet] to the top of Founders and threw it off and it landed on the cement it would be fine.”

Denise Justice is the Executive Director of Correctional Education Operations at Ashland University.  She worked in corrections for 38 years after serving as a Superintendent of the Ohio Central School System which is the Department of Rehab and Correction in Ohio.  Justice said that Ashland University is a trusted provider of correctional education programming.

“Since I first came to work in corrections, I’ve been involved with Ashland University in one way shape or form as one of Ohio DRC’s post-secondary providers,” Justice said.  “So I’ve had a long and close relationship with this correctional education program.”

Post-secondary education helps to change the culture in the jails and prisons.  Marshall said that giving offenders productive projects to work on helps to change their mindset and keep them focused on improving their lives.

“The wardens will tell me that the culture changed because offenders had nothing to do,” Marshall said, “All of a sudden they’re talking about history and philosophy.”

Justice said that even if an offender does not finish a degree during their sentence, having any education, “post-secondary, in particular, it really cuts down their participation in violence on the inside and some of that comes from the fact that it is keeping them positively engaged.”

The main goal of the program is to help offenders to use their time in jail or prison to change their lives and their outlook.  Marshall said that education helps to change the mindset of these prisoners into that of a productive citizen.

“So kind of our ideal situation is a student inside can earn a degree then when they get out they’re equipped for life, Marshall said.  “They can get a job, they can start a business, they can do what they want.”

Education also means that offenders are less likely to go back to prison once they are released.

“That person is much less likely to go back to prison and it also means that person is going to become a taxpayer,” Marshall said.   “They’re less likely to be a burden on society, and they’re breaking that chain of recidivism.”

Ashland University also offers a re-enrollment program that helps to get recently released offenders to finish their degree on the outside.

“Being involved in college begins to improve your sense of worth, your sense of self.

“You will watch them and they will start carrying themselves better.  They will start looking you in the eye. They will start being able to string words together to articulate their thoughts.  They will solve problems with thoughts and discussions rather than violence,” Justice said.

The program aims to give students tangible job skills.  However, Justice said that having and education gives students more than just a set of job skills.  It gives teaches them how to productively function in society.

“What employers have always said to me in my years in corrections is that we don’t so much care if you train them for exactly the specific set that we need.  What we need are people that are going to show up, show up on time, communicate, be a team player, so what we’re providing to the student is some of the basic building blocks of reentering society,” Justice said.

Students can attend Ashland University’s commencement in person, or “if they graduate inside the facility, we have a commencement ceremony even inside the facility,” Marshall said.  “The students get caps and gowns. I and other administrators show up in our bregaglia and we go through the same basic commencement. We a have a commencement address.”

Ashland University’s correctional education program transforms the lives of its students according to Marshall.

“One of the guys who graduated, he said to me, he was standing next to his mom and he said, ‘I think this is the first thing I’ve ever done in my life that my mom’s proud of me for,” Marshall said.