On a warm day this past November, 46 inmates from Limestone Correctional Facility (LCF) in Alabama walked single-file into a meeting room and took seats down front. Their all-white jumpsuits were a stark contrast to others in the room dressed more formally.
“To even be considered for this and then to be in prison and to be recognized like that, it’s special,” said Jacob Woodlee, an inmate at LCF. “It means a lot to me.
“It just shows that people up here, they care about their communities by reinvesting in people that are going to get out again one day, and trying to give us the tools that we need to be able to succeed, and showing us that there is a better way to live life and that we can do it.”
In early 2017, the Phi Theta Kappa Board of Directors unanimously voted to extend membership to those who are incarcerated or on parole. It was a decision borne from the mission of PTK and the colleges it serves: to increase access to membership and its benefits and opportunities by closing equity and inclusion gaps. In short, Phi Theta Kappa would become a partner to these students as they seek second chances.
The news excited members and advisors across the country, but it struck a particular chord with two advisors: Necia Nicholas, then-advisor to the Sigma Lambda Chapter at Calhoun Community College in Alabama, and Martha Petry, advisor to the Alpha Rho Lambda Chapter at Jackson College in Michigan.
Necia was well-familiar with LCF. It was in her community, and she had often visited the prison to purchase plants from its horticulture program.
“They have such a great educational set up at LCF,” Necia said. “I kept seeing these students who were so knowledgeable, so well-behaved that I knew there had to be potential there. When the (PTK) bylaws changed, I thought, ‘Here’s our opportunity.’ “
Necia and her chapter began putting the pieces into place, and it truly became a community effort. Calhoun administrators, faculty, staff, and students donated enough money to cover the $60 international fee for all 46 inductees. Local and regional membership fees were waived.
More donations helped pay for food for a reception for the new inductees.
Sigma Lambda also looked for ways to get its newest members involved in PTK programs. They provided print-outs of the Honors Program Guide and pieces of the Leadership Development curriculum, and plans are in the works to share materials from Competitive Edge, PTK’s online professional development program.
When inmates needed basics like books, the Sigma Lambda Chapter collected more than 1,500 for them.
“It was an honor to help make membership a reality for these deserving students,” Sigma Lambda co-advisor Ragan Chastain said. “Some of these guys have no support from family, and it was amazing to invite them to join our PTK family.”
Calvin Rice has been in prison for 18 years, since he was 25. Now at 43, he encourages his fellow inmates — and everyone else — to complete their education. He’s been getting up at 7:30 each morning at LCF to take classes.
“It’s all about change,” he said.
Change and opportunity, regardless of whether the inmates will be paroled or will remain in prison for the rest of their lives.
“If PTK can offer them resources for success or even a different way of thinking, it gives them confidence,” Necia said. “They realize people believe in them and that they are worthy of the time and monetary investment.”
Nearly 120 inmates have been inducted into the Alpha Rho Lambda Chapter at Jackson College since the change in Phi Theta Kappa’s bylaws. Fifteen induction ceremonies have been held since spring 2017 — three each at five different facilities.
The college is one of 67 colleges and universities across the country participating in the Second Chance Pell pilot program and offers courses through its Prison Education Initiative (PEI). This spring, for the first time, former PEI students now out on parole walked in the graduation ceremony at Jackson College.
Martha Petry, the Alpha Rho Lambda advisor, had taught in the Michigan Department of Corrections prisons for several years and was familiar with the academic excellence of the PEI students. She was eager to bring Phi Theta Kappa and its programs and benefits to the incarcerated students.
The Alpha Rho Lambda Chapter has provided print-outs of the Competitive Edge program to its PEI members. So far, more than 30 inmates have completed levels one, two, or three of the five-level program.
Martha has also compiled other academic resources for the inmates, such as scholarships available at specific colleges and schools that offer correspondence courses.
“We’re trying to create the same kind of equity and access for PEI students that our students on campus have,” she said.
Three groups attend each induction ceremony: those to be inducted, those recently inducted, and those eligible to join. At a recent ceremony, inmate and new member Dennis Skinner asked to address the crowd. He wanted to start a service project and had heard of a sick boy whose dying wish was to receive 100 Christmas cards.
Dennis asked his fellow inmates to ask their families to send the boy a card. The audience was moved, and so was the Alpha Rho Lambda Chapter, which also decided to participate. The boy ended up receiving more than 500 Christmas cards, and Dennis was named the chapter’s vice president of service.
“Becoming a member of PTK validates all of the hard work that I have put into my studies each semester,” he said. “I now feel as if I am a part of something much larger than myself, and I am committed to doing all that I can to represent PTK to the best that I can.”
Back in Alabama, 22 more members were inducted in spring 2018. In April, an LCF officer team was created, and they are currently working on two fundraising projects to pay for future members. The horticultural department at LCF is donating plants, and many of the guys are donating crafts they have made for a silent auction.
Though Necia is now working at Pensacola State College in Florida, she remains passionate about the work the Sigma Lambda Chapter did and continues to do with the students at LCF.
“This was one of the best things I’ve ever been a part of in my life,” she said. “It was by far the most meaningful endeavor I’ve been involved in with Phi Theta Kappa.”