HOMINY — Leland Ross Stermer eagerly shook the hands of college deans and presidents and the nation’s secretary of education as he received his diploma.
Stermer, 57, is serving a 45-year sentence at Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy for his second armed robbery conviction. He was among more than 70 inmates to graduate from Tulsa Community College on Tuesday.
“This is a big deal. It’s going to help a lot of people,” Stermer said of the education program at the prison. “Guys in here, we know the recidivism rate; tools like this help us not come back here.”
Stermer began working on his associate degree decades ago but was unable to finish it until the opportunity presented itself at the prison. He received his associate degree in business on Tuesday and was among TCC’s largest graduating class from Dick Conner Correctional Center.
Betsy DeVos, U.S. Department of Education secretary, attended Tuesday’s graduation at the prison and advocated for the Second Chance Pell pilot program.
“You are all examples of what happens when students can use aid in expanded ways,” DeVos told the graduates. “You are why we propose the Second Chance Pell experiment, or pilot, become a permanent program.”
The Second Chance Pell pilot program, a President Barack Obama-era program to provide federal Pell Grants to qualified inmates, is part of what has contributed to the large growth of the educational programs at prisons in recent years. That pilot program rolled back some of the tough-on-crime policies of former President Bill Clinton’s administration. Pell Grants were available in the late ’80s and early ’90s prior to those policies.
Stermer said he ought to “be home in time for Christmas” after earning his associate degree. He said he is hopeful that he will find some sort of landscaping work near family in the Eufaula area.
TCC has offered educational courses at the prison since 2007 in a joint partnership that also now includes Langston University and the Department of Corrections. However, inmates’ access was limited by their ability to pay tuition and fees. Until the pilot program, only grants and scholarships funded through private donations were available.
“I think what we see here today is evidence of the power of learning and education, no matter who you are, where you are, and that we all have to ultimately be lifelong learners,” DeVos said after the ceremony.
The recidivism rate for those who don’t receive a post-secondary education while incarcerated is about one in four, TCC President Leigh Goodson said. For those who receive that education, she said, about one in 20 re-offend.
A Rand Corp. study from 2013 found that inmates who participated in correctional education were 43% less likely to return to prison within three years than inmates who did not participate in any educational programs, according to a 2016 Department of Education news release.
Seventy-two inmates graduated through the TCC program; 13 of them received an associate degree, and 59 graduated with a workforce-focused certificate.
Eighteen inmates were awarded a diploma for completing the prison’s high school equivalency program.
One person earned a bachelor’s degree from Langston University, which recognized 18 students for their academic performance.
“Graduation, whether back in Tulsa or here at Conner, is our greatest recognition and celebration of academic achievements and students’ success,” Goodson said.