Correctional Center Student Starts New Life with RCC Degree

by Jennifer Rose Bryant

Chris Holman’s early family life and inherent nature impacted his choices and lifestyle. He and his older brother were raised by a single mom doing her best in a difficult situation. Life on the north side of Richmond revolved around drugs, violence, and poverty.

Like any young man he wanted excitement, the ability to make his own choices, to go further, and to live better. There were ways to “get ahead” and Holman took them. At that time in his life, college wasn’t a realistic consideration. Drug distribution provided immediate profit and a quick solution to many of his daily challenges.  At 19, Holman’s choices landed him in jail for a stint and again in 2014 for which he’s currently finishing up the last few months of a long seven-year sentence.  

With a lot of time to think, Holman reflected on his past lifestyle and came to the conclusion that the reward versus risk was hopelessly unbalanced. “There’s just no winning in it,” he says. Holman says he decided he needed to “get everything out of the experience while I’m here” and to “take advantage of the opportunities while I have them.”  He began by getting a Virginia State Barbering license. This accomplishment broadened his vision of a future outside of prison and led him to Rappahannock Community College (RCC).

RCC’s program at Haynesville Correctional Center started in 2008 utilizing funding from various nonprofit foundations. In 2016, the Department of Education began a national pilot program to allow incarcerated students to use Federal Pell Grants after completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Colleges were encouraged to apply to participate in the program, and RCC was one of 67 colleges chosen nationwide–one of just two in the Commonwealth. Rappahannock Community College at Haynesville Correctional Center’s Second Chance Pell Program allows the incarcerated students to pay for tuition, books, and supplies. Additional funding is provided by the Laughing Gull Foundation.

The program aims to reduce recidivism by offering inmates with a good record of behavior within the institution and a General Education Certificate (GED) or high school diploma the opportunity to obtain a two-year Associate of Arts and Sciences degree. Virginia Department of Corrections also offers certification and licensing in various vocations.

In 2018, Holman tentatively took prerequisite courses in English and became comfortable with the idea of being a college student. Eventually he realized there was nothing but himself stopping him from obtaining a two-year degree. Earning a college degree while incarcerated poses many challenges that other traditional students don’t face. Classes at Haynesville are held without computers and internet access; homework and studying is done in noisy dormitories; and all assignments are hand written.

“The program opened my eyes; the teachers are motivating” he says, adding with a joyful smile, “I ask a lot of questions.” He delights in learning and reads everything he can. Up until recently, before classes went entirely online, Holman enjoyed getting a glimpse of the outside world via his teachers’ in-person   instruction. Dr. Matthew Brent, Dr. Kelly Osuanah, and Ms. Therese Johnson all bring an upbeat attitude and help him feel comfortable. Dr. Gena McKinley not only helped to foster his love of writing but also helped him navigate so much about college, including his future educational options. Holman says, “She has taught me so much; she’s the best.” Holman feels that all RCC instructors want to see their students win, and from where he stands that is no small deal.

Holman is on track to graduate this year with a 4.0 GPA and an Associate’s degree. After his release in August, he plans to apply to 4-year colleges in the Atlanta area, including Morehouse College. Due in part to his accomplishments and his challenges, Holman says, “I’ve become a better person. I’m proud of who I am and I’m still getting better. I’m not at my peak yet.”

He has a desire to give back and to help others like him beat the odds; to help them “turn the tide and show them another way.” He also has a deep love of sports and can see himself as a sports reporter.

From Tuesday through Friday Holman works in the prison’s barbershop during the day and has classes every evening. He says Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays are dedicated to studying. At the end of the day, when he lays his head down and closes his eyes, instead of only being able to imagine going back to his old life, Holman sees himself moving forward into a bright future and purpose.