Texas County Jail Offers Incarcerated Students College Credits, Fresh Starts

A partnership between Tarrant County College and the Tarrant County Jail allows incarcerated people to take college classes and prepares them for future careers as they reenter society.
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Published on January 30, 2024
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Drew Johnston, a participant in Tarrant County's Next Phase Program. Photo courtesy of Drew Johnston

  • Drew Johnston thought his education was a lost cause until he took a business course in a prison education program — the Next Phase Program.
  • In addition to a business course, the Next Phase Program offers a course in welding.
  • All participants in the program take courses that promote successful reentry and offer reentry resources and support services.
  • Participants, like Johnston, can apply the credits they earn toward further education upon their release.

In December, Drew Johnston, 35, was among the first Tarrant County Jail inmates to complete the Next Phase Program.

The program — formed from a partnership between the Tarrant County Jail and Tarrant County College in Tarrant County, Texas — offers low-level offenders the chance to earn college credits while incarcerated. The credits can be applied toward degree and trade certificate programs once the student is released.

Johnston completed the business track of the program, which trains students in Microsoft programs like Word and Excel and introduces them to basic economic concepts. Next Phase also offers a separate welding program track, teaching participants the basics of the trade.

For Johnston, the Next Phase Program was a new beginning — quite literally.

He dropped out of school in the 10th grade and spent 11 years in prison over three separate incarcerations. He said he tried to complete his GED degree along the way but gave up because he felt like he'd already missed out on too much.

It's like I have a totally new perspective on life now, Johnston told BestColleges. I believe in myself in ways I never did. I see the opportunity that lies ahead. And I know there are people there who want to help me. That makes all the difference.

One of those people is Tarrant County College South Campus President Dr. Daniel Lufkin. Lufkin said the goal of Next Phase is to prepare participants for future careers — and better lives.

This is about giving guys who have gotten a little off track an opportunity to leave behind whatever circumstances led them to jail and help them be successful in the next phase of their life journeys, Lufkin said.

People who participate in educational programs while incarcerated are 48% less likely to return to jail or prison than those who don't, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

A press release on the Next Phase Program stated that there are 3,000 people currently incarcerated in Tarrant County jails. The local recidivism rate of 57% is lower than the 68% national average, and the program seeks to drive that number even lower as it gains traction, Lufkin said.

Making Second Chances Possible

Lufkin relied on his prior experience setting up a similar program in Virginia to design the Next Phase Program. He and his team believe in cultivating numerous pathways for students, like Johnston, to find success in the outside world.

In addition to courses in their respective tracks, Next Phase Program participants take a transition course that exposes them to resources to assist in their career planning. A separate portion of the program focuses on resources to assist with reentry necessities like housing, transportation, and food.

The idea is to provide a full network of support so students have the best chance of succeeding when they're released, Lufkin said.

Upon completion of the program, students in both tracks earn up to six college credits they can apply toward a business certificate — which students can use to earn higher degrees — or a welding certification, according to Lufkin. They are also fully equipped to begin their careers, should they choose.

Our goal is that our business track participants gain the skills necessary for work in administrative and secretarial roles, while welding track participants receive the training required for work as assistant welders, Lufkin said.

Students 'Like Any Other'

Regardless of the track, participants in the Next Phase Program attend classes four hours a day, Monday through Friday, for eight weeks. They are admitted to Tarrant County College just like any other student, Lufkin said, and expected to perform accordingly.

And they do.

Jessie Galloway, a government instructor at Tarrant County College who also taught the program's mandatory transition course, said her students were so engaged she had to go above and beyond to answer their questions.

We have a standard curriculum for [the transition class], but because of the circumstances, a lot of questions came up which might not have with more traditional students — what kind of bonding is available to felons, what kind of funding opportunities for future education, Galloway told BestColleges.

I had to look at what type of felonies restrict employment opportunities in certain trades. I had to help these men however I could to take the next steps in their careers.

In total, 28 men participated in the program between the two tracks, Lufkin said. Twenty-one completed it, but those who didn't weren't failures — they simply got released.

It's another unique quality of the Next Phase Program. Educational programs are becoming increasingly common for people who are incarcerated, but most take place in prisons — rather than jails — where men have longer, established sentences.

In contrast, working with inmates in a jail, some men are still being arraigned for sentencing and defending their charges. You don't really know who is getting out when, Lufkin said.

For this reason, program participation is restricted to low-level offenders, Lufkin said, so that we can hone in on those who may be finishing their sentences quickly or going home on probation, since they are the ones who are going to need to join the workforce immediately.

He added, We'd love to give everyone an opportunity, of course. But for now, we have to make the best use of our limited resources.

Improving Futures and Inspiring the Next Generation

The Next Phase Program is still in its pilot phase, but Lufkin said he has hopes for expansion.

Thus far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive from everyone involved, Lufkin said. We will continue to evaluate student success rates, and based on that, will potentially grow the program as we move forward.

So far, three program graduates have been released and are continuing their education at Tarrant County College. They include Johnston, who received a probationary sentence and is currently finalizing his class schedule for the upcoming spring semester.

I want to finish the business certificate first. Then, I want to work toward a master's in architectural technology, Johnston said.

He added that he's not the only one who's found a new direction as a result of his participation in the Next Phase Program.

I have three boys — two of them haven't been going to high school because of family problems, Johnston said. I showed my oldest my certificates [from the Next Phase Program], and it encouraged him to get back in school.

Ultimately, Johnston said, I could never have imagined I'd be where I am today. The whole experience has been amazing.

The second group of students participating in the Next Phase Program will begin classes in March, Lufkin said.