Kristen Johnson – The Fayetteville Observer
CLINTON — A typical day for Mahogani Thompkins usually involves stubborn technology and loads of paperwork.
As a case manager at Sampson Correctional Institution, Thompkins wears many hats, but most specifically, she works with more than two dozen incarcerated men currently completing education courses at the facility.
Daily, she is sending completed homework back and forth to professors at local colleges, setting up laptops for class, and helping keep students on track with their work.
“When they learn something new, they’re excited about it,” Thompkins said. “Some of them, they don’t have a lot to be excited about but school gives them something to look forward to. They were eager to learn even during COVID.”
Thompkins said that despite the uncertainty and problems the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the prison, she was determined to help men at the facility continue their education without any gaps.
Many of them will be released soon with associate’s degrees.
In efforts to reduce recidivism and eliminate the stigma of education in prison, Thompkins is among the many case managers and educational coordinators in the state’s prison system working to ensure incarcerated people are better equipped with the skills, tools and credentials needed to re-enter an evolving society.
A partnered effort
Built in the late 1930s, Sampson Correctional Institution, located in Clinton, is one of the oldest prisons in the state.
The facility is occupied by 452 incarcerated men in medium or minimum custody from a range of ages and backgrounds. Education programs at the prison are open to those who have less than eight years left in their sentences.
Sampson Correctional partners with Sampson Community College to extend vocational classes to men in the areas of horticulture, computer application, and laundry service technology. Some formerly incarcerated men who took the classes went on to work in these fields after being released, according to Thompkins.
To get certain courses, she receives recommendations from the men and works with local colleges to get professors to teach in person. Since the pandemic, all courses have been taught online through Blackboard.
“We create flyers for different programs that we may have and that’s a lot of work because you have to ensure that the facility can accommodate the program,” Thompkins said. She has been working in corrections for eight years. “We ask them to submit requests, some of them write requests to me, some of them write to their case managers. Some of them even have their family members call to inquire about getting in the program.”
Both Campbell University and UNC Chapel Hill also offer general higher education courses, and students can earn their associate’s degree upon completion.
UNC’s program at the facility is a correspondence, or outreach, program, and interested men have to complete an application, writing assessment, and assignments to be accepted.
In this self-paced program, students have the option to choose from 10 different courses with 13 months to complete the course without the use of technology or access to databases for research.
“I couldn’t do it,” said Raphael Ginsburg, the associate director for correctional education at UNC. “They do the course on their own and they send work to Chapel Hill, to UNC, it’s graded by instructors and the graded assignment is sent back to the students in the prisons.”
The courses are all transferrable, said Ginsburg, so if a student wishes to continue education at another university, they will have the credits.
“It builds skills and it provides credits, so in very practical ways it (the program) can change people’s lives,” Ginsburg said. “We really look at empowerment and what it takes to empower one’s self, whether in or out of prison. Empowerment is crucial for all of us … but certainly people in prison are in great need of it. When they’re empowered through education, it empowers their families, it empowers their communities, it empowers everyone around them.”
In a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation, a policy thinktank, reported that incarcerated people who participate in correctional education programs were 43% less likely to reoffend compared to those who did not. Similar studies have shown that prison education greatly improves the chances for formerly incarcerated people to stay out of prison.
Graduation for the first cohort in the newer program at Campbell is in August. About 15 men will have earned an associate’s degree in behavioral science.
Thompkins is proud, she said.
Some of the men already have business plans and want to continue their education in the future.
“All of them made the honor roll, they’re making the dean’s list, the president’s list,” she said. “They’re excited to send these grades home to their families so they can see. They’re very intelligent. Most of them will be released soon and they’re working on what they want to do once they’re released.”
In May, Thompkins was awarded by the state’s Department of Public Safety, which houses the prison system, for playing an integral role in the success of the education programs at the Sampson facility.
She became certified to be able to provide tests that would help place the men in either high school or vocational courses, or determine higher education eligibility.
The recognition for her work, she said, was one that came as a surprise.
“It was a shock. Sometimes you don’t feel like it makes a difference,” Thompkins said. “I’ve gotten quite a few congratulations from my coworkers here, and even some people I’ve worked with in the past… it was an honor.”
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