Formerly Incarcerated Man Earns Degree After Decades-Long Fight for Education Behind Bars

Larry “Eddie” Fordham was told he couldn't receive an education because he had a life sentence. Thanks to a prison education program — and a lot of perseverance — he got a degree anyway.
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Published on November 29, 2023
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Image Credit: Photo courtesy of Larry Fordham

  • Larry “Eddie” Fordham got a life sentence at 18 and didn't even have a high school diploma.
  • As a “lifer,” Fordham wasn't eligible to participate in prison education programs, but he fought back and earned a diploma, vocational certificates, and an associate degree from Miami Dade College.
  • The college program offers incarcerated men in South Florida the opportunity to earn college educations behind bars.
  • Fordham, who is free on parole, returned to Everglades Correctional to receive his associate degree after being released just four credits shy of graduation.

On July 19, Larry “Eddie” Fordham, 50, walked across the stage and shook the Miami Dade College president's hand. He received his associate degree with 18 other graduates, all of whom wore caps and gowns over their prison uniforms.

Fordham, though, wasn't a prisoner any longer. He simply wanted to receive his degree among the same men he received his education with.

The event was the culmination of a decades-long fight for Fordham. Incarcerated in 1991 for felony murder as a teen, he was told he wasn't eligible for prison educational programs because of his life sentence (Fordham was released on parole in April 2022).

But Fordham didn't take no for an answer, eventually receiving a high school diploma and welding certificate while incarcerated.

He was just four credits shy of graduating with his associate degree when he was released from prison. He completed his last required course — Spanish II — at Hillsborough Community College before transferring his credits back to Miami Dade College, so he could graduate with his brothers, behind the walls of Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami.

They asked me if I wanted to graduate at Hillsborough Community, and I told them I'd love to, but I had other plans, Fordham told BestColleges.

I wanted to go back to prison and graduate with the same men I'd gotten my education with, to be an inspiration to them, and to show people that this can be done. You can get out after any amount of time behind bars and pursue an education and a prosperous life.

Larry Eddie Fordham smiles and gives a thumbs up while holding his degree at his graduation ceremony. His degree cover reads, College in prison is transformative.
Photo courtesy of Larry Fordham

A Decades-Long Battle

When he began his incarceration — at barely 18 years of age — prison administration told Fordham he wasn't eligible for educational programs because he had a life sentence.

The idea that kind of prevailed in the Florida system at that time was, Why should we spend money educating these guys that are never going to get out? Fordham said. And everyone just kind of went along with that.

But Fordham didn't let that stand in his way.

I remember sitting with an administrator who wanted to assign me to a grounds crew job. And I kept saying, But sir, I want to get my education. I should be allowed to get my education.

When he persisted, Fordham said, the administrator told him that he could enroll in a 150-hour literacy program with the caveat that if I so much as missed one class, fell asleep for one second, I'd be thrown into [solitary] confinement.

Fordham not only attended each class — without falling asleep — he completed the program. Then, he lobbied successfully to receive a degree from the high school he'd attended prior to his incarceration (rather than a GED certificate, as is common in Florida prisons). Trade school, Fordham said, was his ultimate goal in those days.

But it, too, took convincing.

I was really interested in the welding program, Fordham said. But the head of education at my facility said it wasn't available to me because I had a life sentence. He went so far as to blame it on the state statute, and even pulled the law book out and gave it to me to read for myself.

It was a fortunate turn of events, Fordham recalled, because the statute didn't say anything at all about lifers not being allowed to further their education. Rather, it said that those nearing release should have priority in educational programming placement.

Still, Fordham said, the prison administrator didn't budge on the “rule.” So, Fordham wrote another letter explaining his situation, this time to the regional director of education for the Florida Department of Corrections.

And wouldn't you know it, Fordham said, a little while later, I get a call from the head of education at my facility, and he tells me I can enter the welding program, but that if anyone comes along who has five years or less that wants to enroll, I would have to give up my spot.

Fordham took the opportunity, and the rest is history. He received his welding certificate and — decades later — sought his associate degree with Miami Dade College.

It took about 20 years from when I'd completed my welding certificate, but once Miami Dade College started its program, I was one of the first to apply. There was no way I was going to miss out on that.

A True Second Chance

The Miami Dade College program at Everglades Correctional Institution is also known as the Institute for Educational Empowerment. It was started in 2021 by Dr. Minca Davis-Brantley and Samantha Carlo, both professors at Miami Dade College.

Davis-Brantley explained the origins of the program to BestColleges: This all grew out of a psychoeducational program called ESUBA we brought into the prison in 2013 that taught individuals how to reverse the effects of abuse.

We knew almost right away that there was more to be done. The students wanted more knowledge and the science behind the curriculum and the topics. We were having very intelligent conversations and were struck with how many of these men didn't have formal educations, yet could hold their feet to the fires with any academic. The Miami Dade program started from there.

Davis-Brantley and Carlo — who, herself, had significant experience working in prisons — collaborated to construct the framework of the Miami Dade College program. But it wasn't until years later that they got the chance to move forward with their plans, thanks to the passage of the Second Chance Pell Grant, which covered tuition for incarcerated students.

Enacted by the Obama administration in 2015, the Second Chance Pell initiative works with colleges in an attempt to help incarcerated individuals access educational programs to support reentry, empower formerly incarcerated persons, enhance public safety, and strengthen our communities and our economy, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Prison education programs have been shown in studies to reduce recidivism, or reoffending, by as much as 48%.

According to Carlo, the Miami Dade College program was one of the “pilot programs” — an experiment, essentially — launched under the Second Chance Pell program.

And it has worked: Since its inception, the Institute for Educational Empowerment has awarded 40 associate degrees. It will award its first bachelor's degrees in April 2024, Carlo said.

Like other similar programs, students at the Institute for Educational Empowerment attend classes in groups known as “cohorts.” There are over 20 courses offered by the program currently, including:

  • English
  • College Algebra
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • American History
  • Philosophy
  • Speech
  • Filmmaking

Students live together in a common dorm where they conduct study groups and tutor one another according to their individual strengths and weaknesses.

It is more of a community than we're used to seeing on our traditional campus, Carlo said.

These are students who work exceptionally hard, and perform exceptionally well. Our first two cohorts had a cumulative GPA of 3.8. They know they are reflections of the program, and they take that very seriously. We are beyond proud of them.

Moving Forward

Davis-Brantley and Carlo said they are always working to expand the Miami Dade College program. They regularly screen new instructors to offer new classes and consistently review curriculum and procedures to streamline operations for the future.

We have a 20-plus person team, Davis-Brantley said. There are a lot of people working behind the scenes to make sure this program can continue to thrive and provide incarcerated men with the opportunity for something more when they are released.

Many of these men, like Fordham, even continue their education upon release. Having already earned his associate degree, Fordham plans to begin pursuing his bachelor's degree in the Pensacola, Florida, area this coming fall.

And it's about more than just personal achievement, as Fordham explains:

To me, education means more than just textbooks and long hours of studying. To me, it means redemption. I want to show people that, for guys like me, our past is our past. We can move forward as formerly incarcerated men and actually make a difference in society.

Fordham intends to major in communication and public administration.

I want to serve, Fordham said. I want to lead. It's important to me to show everyone, especially all my incarcerated brothers, that success is possible when it's all said and done and your sentence is served.