Season 3, Episode 6 - Dean Stephanie Hartwell talks about a new program designed to help former inmates earn college degrees

Stephanie Hartwell, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, joins the podcast to discuss a new initiative aimed at stemming recidivism and improving lives for former prison inmates.

Episode notes

A new criminal justice initiative designed to create a prison to higher education pipeline is sparking hopes for reduced recidivism and improved quality of life for former inmates. Stephanie Hartwell, dean of the WSU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a principal investigator on the project, talks with host Darrell Dawsey about the life-changing potential of this pilot program.


Stephanie Hartwell became dean of Wayne State's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences the university's largest college in 2018. She is a professor of sociology and an adjunct professor of psychiatry.

A renowned sociologist, Hartwell conducts both large- and small-scale research and evaluation projects focusing on transitions from institutions to the community, with emphasis on vulnerable populations including formerly incarcerated people released from corrections and victims of gun violence with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Hartwell earned her Ph.D. from Yale University in 1995 and was an assistant professor of psychiatry at the UConn School of Medicine prior to joining the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Boston, an institution that shares Wayne's State's social justice mission. She was a professor of sociology at UMass Boston for 21 years and was honored to receive the Chancellor's Medal for Distinguished Teaching in 2012. Additionally, Hartwell was an adjunct professor of psychiatry at UMass Chan Medical School. Prior to joining WSU, she was interim dean of UMass Boston's College of Public and Community Service while also an associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts.      

Hartwell has published more than 45 peer-reviewed articles and chapters and has been awarded approximately $8 million in grants to fund her research. She currently serves on the ROCA evaluation advisory board and holds leadership roles with the American Sociological Association, the Society for the Study of Social Problems, and the International Academy of Law and Mental Health.

Additional resources

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Listen to Dean Hartwell discuss community partnerships during a radio interview:

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Watch videos from CLAS on YouTube:


Announcer:                   Welcome to Today at Wayne, a podcast that engages and informs the Wayne State University campus community. With news announcements, information and turn events discussions relevant to the university's goals and mission, Today at Wayne serves as the perfect form for our campus to begin a conversation or keep one going. Thanks for joining us.

Darrell Dawsey:             Welcome to the Today at Wayne podcast. I'm Darrell Dawsey. After decades spent amassing the largest incarcerated population in the world, the United States has in recent years sought to reduce the nation's prison population and seek new alternatives to mass imprisonment. For many of the men and women who spent part of their lives behind bars, this new push means that more of them are returning home each year and they're looking to turn their lives around. And if they're to succeed, they will need greater access to jobs, training, and education.

Now that help is on its way thanks in part to a new program developed by Wayne State University and led by WSU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean, Stephanie Hartwell. Bolstered by a $200,000 grant from the Michigan Justice Fund, the new program hopes to boost the success and the economic mobility of formerly incarcerated individuals by clearing a pathway from prison to higher education. And here to talk with us about this new program is one of the principal architects of the initiative herself, Dean Stephanie Hartwell. Welcome.

Stephanie Hartwell:      Hi Darrell. How are you? Thank you for having me.

Darrell Dawsey:             Absolutely, wonderful to have you on, very appreciative of you taking the time to join us. So let's just kind of get into this. Why don't you start by telling us about the new program and how it works?

Stephanie Hartwell:      So I was lucky enough to talk to some folks from corrections and then from the Michigan Justice Fund about the kind of initiatives they were interested in funding. And I had done a lot of proof of concept work in Massachusetts around transitioning individuals from incarceration back to the community. But that formative work was done with individuals who had mental illness or major mental illness. So we were doing transition programming for individuals with mental illness, and that program was called the Forensic Transition Team. A woman, a social worker from Massachusetts named Karen Orr helped develop the concept with me, we did a program evaluation. I believe the program's still around today. I've been gone from Massachusetts for almost five years. But it was around previous to that for 20 years and helped transition individuals and was a statewide program. So it grew and became a statewide program and had positive program evaluation numbers. It was efficacious, cost effective, helped individuals, and helped them get the services they need.

 So trying to wear multiple hats in my role as Dean, but also as a program evaluator and a sociologist, I thought let's use that proof of concept and shift it to higher ed. So one thing that folks don't know is that in fact, recidivism rates are less, the more education you get. So they correlate, they're inversely correlated. And the higher you go, secondary education is the gold standard because folks are 62% less likely to recidivate or go back to prison. So getting associates degree at a community college or a bachelor's degree at a four year institution changes that equation substantially even more so than having gainful employment. And folks find that difficult to understand. In discussions about the education transition coordination program, we want folks to understand that either way taxpayers are paying for these individuals. If they're behind bars, it costs X amount of dollars, if they're going to school on Pell eligible grants or other grants, it costs tax dollars. But a more civil society is a result of the higher education and less recidivism.

Darrell Dawsey:             We've seen a sort of reduction in mass incarceration in the country over the years, and proponents have come from both sides of the political aisle, all parts of the political spectrum, and a big part of the push is because we're trying to save money, right? I mean, it just made no sense to incarcerate folks at that level, especially given the costs.

Can you kind of give us some sense of what this means in terms of the cost now, the money that would've been spent locking some of these folks up, or keeping people behind bars and spent trying to help these folks get an associate's degree, a bachelor's degree, a master's degree? Can you give us some sense of what the trade off is from a cost standpoint?

Stephanie Hartwell:      Sure. I could try. And some of the mass incarceration, the reduction is that is because we've learned that it's not good for anybody, and that these folks, even 98% or 97% of prisoners are returned to the community, people that are incarcerated are returned to the community at some point. But they're very likely to recidivate within three years, very high rates of recidivism.

So dependent on the state, states spend different per capita per person amount on incarceration. States like Massachusetts, more liberal states spend about $60,000 a year on individuals. States down in the south, I used to, when I taught criminal justice, I'd be like, you don't want to be incarcerated in Alabama because spend eight to 10,000, there's not a lot of services.

So each state is different, but it is residential costs, right? It's food, it's programming, it's shelter, it's healthcare. So it's expensive. And a year, depending on where you go to school is less than $60,000, less than $30,000. So that exchange is important to understand. Because some folks say, "Well, why does this individual who committed a crime and who's found guilty, have the right to higher ed?" Well, anybody has the right to higher ed who can access it. But I think what folks don't understand is the impact and the effect it has on recidivism rates. And that decline and how it can change an individual from being disruptive and costly to a community, and harmful in the neighborhoods, to being a productive citizen who creates meaning and passes that along to their family. And so I think that's important.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. You mentioned families, and that's something I want to talk a little bit about. We talk about the impact on the individuals themselves, who are kind of coming home, these returning citizens. What does this mean for our homes? What does this mean for our neighborhoods? What does this mean for our communities in terms of the positive, beneficial impact?

Stephanie Hartwell:      So I started this work in Boston in a program called Boston Uncornered. I'm trying to think of the umbrella organization. It was about bringing gang members and getting them into high school, getting them GED, and getting them into college courses. But the idea was, and it had proof of concept was that if you could help these individuals get educated and be positive, prosocial influencers on their neighborhood is better than having them come out and return to the gang and be on the corner, doing negative things. So the larger umbrella organization was called College Bound Dorchester that I work for and I helped them do some program evaluation.

And so these ideas, the educational transition program came from sort of that formative work in Boston transitioning individuals with the mental health issues, but also the work with Boston Uncornered and College Bound Dorchester around the principles in larger meaning of higher education in people's lives. And so if you could help change how a person behaves at home, in the community, with their families, it makes a huge difference too, because all these things have ripple effects.

Darrell Dawsey:             Absolutely. Now, has the program actually kicked off? I know there was talk about you guys receiving this $200,000 grant. So I'm just wondering where things are in terms of the development and the actual implementation of the program.

Stephanie Hartwell:      So we have a fantastic steering committee with folks from the community, from HMSA that's our community partner. So when folks are released, they can be plugged into all the services in addition to higher ed. And the Michigan Department of Corrections, we have fantastic partners. We have consultants that have spent time incarcerated before. We've hired the educational transition coordinator, the ETC as we call him, Tyrell Tops, he's fantastic. He's a Wayne State alumni. We have a research assistant who's helping me with the formative program evaluation.

The steering committee meets monthly for 30 minutes. We go, boom, boom, boom through everything. Tyrell, the educational transition coordinator, the only thing that's holding him back from going up to Jackson, which is where our partner facilities are right now is COVID. We're hopeful he'll be able to get in facility early March, be able to log the individuals that are already taking college classes, and identify and screen and intake individuals that will either be routed towards community college or Wayne State University. So the program is up and running. Tyrell is here in the Dean's office today, I believe, meeting people, meeting connections at Wayne State, but also creating those pipelines to community colleges.

Darrell Dawsey:             So this is going to impact inmates who are already taking courses even as they're behind bars, so that when they come out they'll be able to just transition to an educational institution. Can you give us some sense of how many people are going to be coming through the program?

Stephanie Hartwell:      So our goal is a hundred because it's a pilot program and a hundred is a good number to analyze. People understand a hundred. But it also has meaningful impact, that you're able to see some variables and some correlations with a hundred, who this program works for. It's a formative evaluation, which means the hallway, we feed information back in the program to improve it. And we learn as we go.

I'm very passionate about the transition piece. Sometimes that gets lost and that in-reach piece into facility, and when individuals immediately upon release having touch points, because being incarcerated in sort of the total institution and then being released to the community, there's a lot that can go, I always say kablooey. So we need to hold onto folks and help them and make sure that they're registered for college courses, they've done their applications, they've done their financial aid forms. And then they also have the mental health and other supports that they need in the community; transportation, housing, mental health services, whatever they should need.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. Now you say this is a pilot program. How long is it scheduled to run? And at what point does it transition become a a staple thing, hopefully anyway?

Stephanie Hartwell:      So we have impactful outcomes. Currently, one of the drawbacks of the program and it was as written because we knew we'd have one ed transition coordinator. With support of some social work interns from Wayne State University, that were working only in men's facilities, which to me makes me mad a little bit because I spent most of my life studying gender differences of folks coming out. So we'd like to be able to replicate the program to women to begin with, but then also to a team of educational transition coordinators across the state. And then have it be proof of concept, a program that could be replicated across the country. We have big goals. But we need to continue to think about funding sources and what we're looking at in terms of other grants beyond the program's two years of funding.

Darrell Dawsey:             I think this is wonderful. And I certainly hope you're able to get the support that you need. I don't want to take up too much of your time, Dean Hartwell. I know you're a busy woman, but I'm just wondering if you could just take a couple of minutes, maybe talk to us a little bit about something maybe I haven't asked you about, or is there something you want to emphasize about the program, maybe something that we haven't covered, something that our viewers and our listeners might need to know about. Is there anything you want to share?

Stephanie Hartwell:      Sure. I mean, I think that my colleagues at Wayne State have been incredibly supportive of this program and this pipeline initiative. Nobody said, "What are you doing, Stephanie?" Rob Davenport over in facilities has said... One best practice that we know about is work study for these individuals on campus. So if they're at Wayne State that they're not going out to a job out in the community that might take them away from their studies or their focus on what they need to do on campus. And so Rob Davenport said, "I have jobs. They can come work study for facilities." In food services, the same thing, just open arms. We want to support this program. And Tyrell has reached out to advising, financial aid. Michael Cuatro, who does the affiliation agreements with community colleges. And everybody's just been wonderfully welcoming and open to this idea. And you don't always find that. So I think that's actually fantastic.

This is a real deal. We are not just paper pushing. We are going to be working with individuals that have real problems, and we've built in services that they need. Even some of the services at Wayne State are on campus. So we have mental health counseling on campus. We have a psych clinic on campus. So some of those things we do have, and we have the capacity. Tyrell has been working on too, identifying folks already that have had an incarceration history to have peer support groups. And so we're building those pieces in. And we're going to learn as we go. So that's the story with this.

Darrell Dawsey:             We're wishing you all the best of luck. Dean Hartwell, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to join us here on the podcast. Like I said, I know you're busy, but I really appreciate you stopping by for a few moments.

Stephanie Hartwell:      Yeah. And thanks for finding the work interesting. I find it interesting too.

Darrell Dawsey:             This is fantastic work. And if this wins, we all win. That's the way I feel about it.

Stephanie Hartwell:      That's absolutely true.

Darrell Dawsey:             All of our communities benefit. So thank you so much for this fantastic work and thank you again for taking the time to join us here on the Today at Wayne podcast.

Stephanie Hartwell:      Thanks Darrell.

Darrell Dawsey:             Talk with you soon. Bye-bye

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