Phi Theta Kappa International President James Elliott found hope and a new life's mission through in-prison education. The Delaware Technical Community College Student is now working to bring awareness of Second Chance Pell Grants and in-prison education to all prisons in his home state.
James Elliott is the 2019-20 international president of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society and a student at Delaware Technical Community College. He is also a formerly incarcerated student, convicted of a felony after participating in a home invasion at the age of 19. Sentenced to seven years in prison, Elliott ultimately enrolled in a distance learning program while incarcerated, which “truly changed my life,” he says.
After being released, Elliott returned to Delaware Tech, which he had briefly attended before becoming incarcerated. He has advocated for federal and state legislation that has helped the formerly incarcerated return to society and encouraged the institution to apply to participate in the Second Chance Pell program for incarcerated students.
Now working at Delaware Tech as an aide and taking criminal justice applications, Elliott is preparing to apply to four-year institutions. “Community colleges have the power to open the door and offer that to the student,” he says. “The system had cut off everyone if they made a mistake. We need to open the doors back up.”
Q: What was your experience with school like before you were incarcerated?
Up until middle school, I was an average student. I was at a private school and struggled with racism. I ended up getting kicked out and went to Newark High School. I failed senior year and wound up getting my degree in summer school.
I enrolled at Delaware Tech, but dropped out after the fourth week because that’s when my parents would get their money back. I was actually arrested while I was still enrolled. I wound up spending five years in an actual prison, and six months at a halfway house.
Q: What led you to start taking college classes while incarcerated?
I didn’t want to. My mom was persistent — in my family, everyone has a degree. It was a norm, but it was a norm I hated. I think what really made me take the course was that I had wasted so many opportunities from my parents — I had nothing but time, and I had run out of excuses to do it.
Delaware didn’t have an in-state university that offered degree-level courses. I couldn’t use Pell, so my family had to pay out of pocket. My mother did some research and found a university in Ohio that offered distance-learning courses.
It was a really hard process because my only communication with them was either through my mother or the mail, which was really slow. But I took a sociology course that really hit home for me — looking at society and why things happen really helped me.
Until I completed that first class, education and school had always been negative for me — nothing good could come out of them. Then I realized that maybe I did have what it takes. I got honest with myself and realized this was the first time I tried.
Education allowed me to see that I had goals and a vision. It truly changed my life.
Q: What was it like returning to society?
I didn’t know how I was going to adapt and come out of prison. My whole life had been dictated to me, and I had the shell shock of being out in society.
What really hurt me is that I couldn’t take college classes at the halfway house. I had come to love school. I was the only person taking college courses — it was a badge of honor. Then I had the struggles of finding a job. What really hit home was when I was offered a job as a janitor. Then HR did a background check, and they denied me. I could perform, but it didn’t matter. The system was designed for me to fail.
Education was different, because if I worked hard, I got an A regardless of being a felon. I could work hard and see that come back to me.
Q: What was it like going back to Delaware Tech?
It was kind of surreal. But I was doing well — I got a 4.0 GPA my first semester.
One of the students next to me in an accelerated math class was the Phi Theta Kappa president. She asked me about an Honors in Action project she was working on. Newsweek had run an article on Wilmington labeling it as “Murder Town, U.S.A.,” and she was debunking it. That really enticed me and sparked my passion for prison reform.
Q: How did you get involved in advocating for Second Chance Pell?
Our campuses are within 20 minutes of each of the prisons in Delaware. We’re the only community college in the state, and we could serve all of them. I met with one of the college administrators, drew up a proposal, and did a bunch of research on the benefits of education in prisons and how schools involved in the Second Chance Pell program operate. I spent a lot of my time running around Wilmington chasing politicians. My success as a student showed it was something we could and should do.
In September, Delaware Tech applied for Second Chance Pell; they’re waiting to hear back from the federal government.
Q: How did your involvement in Phi Theta Kappa help with your advocacy for incarcerated students?
PTK was in the middle of making constitutional changes allowing citizens who had been incarcerated to become full members of the honor society. Both Delaware Tech and PTK had the willingness to go against society’s standards, providing me with the opportunities to change my life.
I was named to the All-USA Academic Team, one of the top 20 community college students in the nation, and awarded the New Century Transfer Pathway Scholar 20th century scholarship, the first time it was ever given to someone with a criminal record.
I had made it my goal to get Delaware Tech to apply for Second Chance Pell. When the press release was published, it was picked up by USA Today, and I started getting calls to testify for a state bill for felony expungement. It passed in 2019. I also was asked by Sen. Chris Coons to attend a roundtable in support of The First Step Act, a federal bipartisan prison reform bill that was passed into law.
As international president of PTK, I’m speaking all over the country this year. I’ve been asked to come to prisons to speak, and I’ve been on college campuses to advocate against mass incarceration and community colleges’ role in supporting incarcerated students.
I was always a leader, but I was leading in the wrong ways. I never used my leadership for the betterment of myself or others. PTK gave me a platform to speak on behalf of education reform — and to show the value in having students who have been incarcerated.
Q: What would you tell trustees about serving the formerly incarcerated?
Remember that the recidivism rate is 80 percent. With a vocational training degree, it drops to approximately 30 percent. With an associate degree, the chance of returning to prison is just over 13 percent. With a bachelor’s degree, it’s 5.6 percent, and with a master’s degree, it’s almost zero. As trustees, there’s an incredible power to decide what to do about this on your campuses.
They also need to make sure their community college is a community with the wraparound services it offers — a food pantry, a clothing closet, and mental health counselors. The burden isn’t just providing an education, but also providing what a community would provide.
We can pass all these laws, but we can’t make someone [succeed] if the opportunity isn’t there. Education puts the opportunity to succeed in their hands. It starts with being as inclusive as you can be.
A week or two ago, I was standing with our PTK advisor unveiling one of our chapter’s college projects — we opened up a student success center in the cafeteria. I could remember the day after the robbery, I was standing in the same spot, talking to a friend about it. It’s eerie that I was a totally different person. I was one of the worst Delaware Tech students, and now I’m among the best. It’s hard to think about who I was then and who I am now.
The article above was originally published in the winter 2020 issue of Trustee Quarterly, the magazine of the Association of Community College Trustees.
Since 2015, over 25 community colleges throughout the United States have been offering college programs in prisons funded by the Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Grant experiment. Part of ACCT’s congressional advocacy has been to support a repeal of the ban on using federal financial aid in prisons.
This below episode of In the Know with ACCT, recorded live during the 50th Annual ACCT Leadership Congress, explains how trustees can help to bring their colleges' educational resources to area prisons.
The episode features colleges that have been offering college in prison programs and campus reentry services. You will also hear from two students whose participation in college in prison transformed their lives.