RCC’s Dr. David Keel to brief Senate-sponsored committee in D.C.

Located in Richmond County, Haynesville Correctional Facility is the home to over a thousand inmates. Many of these men will not be released, but some who are serving their time are changing their future with education.

Thanks to the Second Chance Pell program and funding from other private grants, some of the inmates are also known as students in the evening, as the faculty and staff of Rappahannock Community College descend into the compound.

“We have 28 students who were in the Second Chance Pell currently and many graduates from the recent past,” says Dr. David Keel, RCC’s Dean of Student Development, who helps lead a team from RCC to provide education to those eligible.

The Second Chance Pell is a pilot program backed by the U.S. Department of Education, which includes 67 colleges and universities, of which RCC is a part. The aim of the program is to assist those who are incarcerated find jobs after their release and help them become productive members of society.

Keel notes that Haynesville students are also supported by The Sunshine Lady and the Laughing Gull foundations. The “Sunshine Lady” herself is Doris Buffet, sister of Berkshire-Hathaway billionaire, Warren Buffet.

“She’s very passionate about helping people who have been incarcerated get educated and helping those who are survivors of domestic violence,” says Keel.

Thanks to the assistance from these institutions, RCC has been educating students at Haynesville since 2008.

Keel says that some of the Haynesville students are taking classes within RCC’s Arts and Science Transfer Program, which will prepare them for transfer to a four-year university upon completion.

“Many of our students know that education will change employment options,” says Keel. “They are very interested in business classes and our Sunshine Lady Foundation cohort — about half of them — are taking business management classes which is one of our associate degrees applied science.

“Those classes are geared toward helping a student translate skills more immediately to appointment rather than obtaining a bachelors degree.”

Though the students are located inside a prison, their in-class experience is very similar to what any college student might enjoy — with one gigantic exception.

“They have no Internet access,” says Keel.

A challenge for both students and staff, the lack of Internet makes communicating, filling out forms and other routine tasks a bit more time-consuming. Whereas college students of today can expect to complete much of the application process online, Haynesville students must rely on the U.S. Mail for all correspondence with RCC faculty and staff. The financial aid process itself, too, is challenging, meaning that Haynesville students must complete their forms on paper or in-person.

But, all of these hoops are worth it, according to Keel.

“We know that the recidivism (relapse into criminal behavior) rates for people of incarcerated are quite high but, there is a growing body of research that suggests that you are much less prone to recidivism if you have an education,” says Keel.

“If you have somebody coming from a community where there are not a lot of job options, and when they get out where there aren’t a lot of jobs, and they have a felony conviction, that makes it even tougher for them for employment.”

Keel and his colleagues must be doing something right, as he will be heading to Washington, D.C. to participate in a lunch briefing on Second Chance Pell grants on September 18.  The briefing is sponsored by Senator (D-HI) Brian Schatz and the Justice Roundtable’s Reentry Working Group.

“I will be present to serve as part of the panel,” says Keel. The panel will be made up of people with expertise in the areas of policy, corrections, and higher education; as well as former Pell grant recipients will discuss how Pell Grants improve access to higher education for incarcerated individuals and help to improve individual, family, and community reentry outcomes and success. There will be time for audience questions.

Dr. Keel is quick to point the spotlight at others who make the Haynesville program operate successfully, like Dean Matthew Brent, English professor Gina McKinley, financial aid officer Eric Fallin and the many other full and part-time faculty and staff who work at Haynesville regularly.

He also credits Haynesville’s Assistant Principal, Ms. Dante DaWalt, for helping nurture and support the program from within its walls. Her input has been key to the program’s success.

One item Dr. Keel enjoys sharing about the experience at Haynesville is that beyond simply helping people, RCC is creating a real collegiate environment for them. Aside from the metal detectors and lack of Internet, the students learn, and the faculty teaches much as they would anywhere.

“I see our role as being like the Ellis Island of Education,” says Keel. “We help all sorts of students from really high achieving students who could go to Duke or U.Va. or UNC Chapel Hill, but we also serve students that wouldn’t necessarily have a lot of other options.

“I think that we’re helping strengthen our community by giving people who are vulnerable choices.”