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Incarcerated graduates say degrees help them "transcend" prison's walls

What it's like to earn a college degree in prison

Lavonta Bass' khaki-colored prison uniform peeks out from beneath his cap and gown. Honor cords are draped around the 42-year-old's neck. He has spent over a decade in prison but says he was fine delaying an early release if it meant his son could see him graduate as valedictorian.

"I think it was a symbolic moment for him," Bass told CBS News. "For me to really show him that although I'm here, I'm still trying to do things to better myself."

CBS News gained exclusive access to East Jersey State Prison for a graduation ceremony in November. Bass was one of 56 incarcerated students who earned a degree — an associate's from Raritan Valley Community College or a bachelor's from Rutgers University. 

Both degrees carry the same credentials as if they were earned on the respective campuses, said the program's coordinator.

"If we had a degree inside that didn't stand the test of time when the person leaves, what would we really be offering them in terms of a credential?" said Sheila Meiman, a director at Raritan Valley. "They need the skills, they need the knowledge, they need the ability to transfer that degree."

The program is part of an initiative called New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prison, or NJ-STEP — a partnership between Raritan Valley, Rutgers and the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Bass has been behind bars since 2006 for an aggravated assault conviction. As he prepares for release, he said his focus is on using his education to provide for his family. 

"I've been gone for quite some time," Bass said. "Everything I do now, it's not about me, it's about them. This is just one step of many that needs to be taken so we can continue to move forward."

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Lavonta Bass CBS News

Seven out of 13 correctional facilities in the state participate in NJ-STEP. Since 2012, more than 200 students have earned associates degrees and more than 40 students have graduated with their bachelor's in Justice Studies. 

One of the biggest hurdles for such programs is the cost. That's in large part due to the 1994 crime bill, which barred incarcerated individuals from obtaining federal student aid through Pell Grants.

"Overnight, we saw the availability of college programs in prison just vanish," said Margaret diZerega, a project director at the Center for Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice. "Talking to people who were in prison at the time, they remember just this feeling of hopelessness that came down after the crime bill."

Rutgers and Raritan Valley are two of only 67 schools nationwide selected for the government's Second Chance Pell Experiment. It's a pilot program the Obama Administration implemented in 2016. 

It's estimated only 11,000 students in the U.S. participate annually in Second Chance Pell. A report by the Vera Institute estimates if the ban was lifted, 463,000 incarcerated individuals would be eligible for federal education assistance. 

To date, nearly 200 formerly incarcerated students have been admitted to Rutgers University. Bass has already started taking bachelor's courses and said his time inside has motivated him to finish on campus post-release.

"If a prisoner isn't doing well, we form study groups," Bass said. "We surround him, we circle the wagons and we make sure he gets the things that he needs. We just don't give up on him because we have to carry it forward for the next people coming behind us."

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Marvin Spears CBS News

That spirit resonates with Marvin Spears, the valedictorian of the bachelor's program. In his graduation speech, the 54-year-old said he views his classmates earning degrees as an ideological shift. Looking out at a crowd of family and friends, he spoke about "redefining the identity of the incarcerated man."

That's an identity Spears has carried for decades. He was sent to prison in 1994 for first-degree murder. 

"We've always been painted with the picture that we are our crimes," Spears told CBS News. "Going through the program and having people believe in us, showed us that if we did the right thing with the program then it would transcend these walls."

Studies show that education helps reduce the likelihood someone will land back behind bars. Once released, 90% of formerly incarcerated students who earn a Rutgers degree are employed or participating in a full-time graduate study program within a year.

About 37% of incarcerated individuals in the United States do not have a high school education or GED. That's nearly 20 percentage points higher than the general population, a troubling fact for experts looking to address mass incarceration.

Currently, 23 states have zero post-education funding through Second Chance Pell, although there are other programs across the nation funded through various philanthropic or private partnerships.

Second Chance Pell is renewed on a yearly basis, and experts express cautious optimism. The Trump Administration announced this spring it's expanding the program, although there's no way to estimate how many institutions will qualify. 

It's estimated states could save a combined $365 million per year in prison costs with expanded access to post-education programs.

Spears said he considers himself lucky to have received a free education and a degree from Rutgers. He plans to provide opportunities to others in his community, that he himself never had growing up. 

"If I could create a positive road for the kids to travel, I can save some of them," he said. "I may not be able to save them all, but I know I can save some, because if I had a different path to travel, I may not be sitting here speaking with you right now."

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