At Graterford, lifers get degrees even if they'll never use them

Luis Gonzalez, a Graterford inmate who is to be resentenced next month for a 1986 killing, graduated from the Villanova program last year.

At 44, Matthew Slaughter has seen a lot, and not much of it in an academic setting. He grew up in North Philadelphia's Richard Allen Homes and became a father when he was 14. Arrested before his 20th birthday for a 1990 murder in North Philadelphia, he was sentenced in 1992 to life in prison.

Similarly, Edward Ramirez, 39, who grew up in Logan and whose father is a retired Philadelphia police officer, was just 18 when he committed a 1995 murder in Frankford for which he is serving a life term.

Neither man has a realistic hope of ever again living outside the confines of Graterford Prison. Yet the two lifers now have one other thing in common: college diplomas.

Slaughter and Ramirez are among seven Graterford inmates who graduated June 16 from a Villanova University program that grants bachelor's degrees in liberal arts to inmates. For a third, Angel Ortiz, 44, who was sentenced to life for a 1990 murder in Fairhill, it was an achievement 22 years in the making.

Their reasons vary for working toward degrees which they have no hope of using on the outside, but their motivation generally boils down to self-respect.

"I felt like I failed my siblings" when I went to prison, said Slaughter, whose degree includes minors in philosophy, sociology, theology, and history. "My brother, son, daughter did time. . . . I wanted to redeem myself."

"The incentive at Graterford is to build yourself," Ramirez said. "It's the power of education."

'National model'

The Graterford program was started in 1972 by a Villanova criminologist using federal Pell Grant subsidies. In the 1970s and '80s, Villanova was among several U.S. universities with prison education programs, according to Kate Meloney, who has directed the Villanova-Graterford effort since August 2015.

The landscape changed dramatically when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners. Most universities couldn't afford to continue their programs. But Villanova decided to underwrite the cost, becoming a "national model" for inmate education, said Jill McCorkel, a Villanova sociology professor who has taught in the program.

Although the crime bill shuttered most programs, that may change soon. In June, the U.S. Department of Education announced 67 participating colleges and universities in President Obama's Second Chance Pell pilot program, including Villanova, which will offer Pell Grants to 25 Graterford students next spring, Meloney said.

Students have taken theology, philosophy, and even Arabic - subjects that may seem better suited for twenty-something grad students than for convicted felons.

Research has shown that as a prisoner's level of education goes up, the likelihood of recidivism goes down. An oft-cited 2013 report on prison education by the nonprofit RAND Corp. shows that a college degree increases an inmate's chances of finding employment after release.

But most of the program's 2016 graduates will never get that chance. Four of the seven are serving life. The others are serving sentences with minimums ranging from 35 to 50 years, ensuring that even if they are released, they may be well into old age.

Professors can volunteer for the program or include their Graterford instruction among the classes they are paid to teach. Students receive a general liberal arts degree, though they can obtain any of the minors Villanova offers, Meloney said. Inmates must go through an application process, including an essay and entrance exam. Inmates do not pay to be in the program.

Anyone can apply, but because of the amount of time it takes to get a degree, the program typically doesn't accept men with sentences of only a few years. However, Meloney said, the program is looking for ways to involve younger men who have shorter sentences, who will be able to use their degrees to find employment. She said the program tries to create an "even split" between lifers and those with release dates.

'Eyes wide open'

Although it usually takes four years for traditional students to receive an undergraduate degree, it often takes Graterford students 15 years or more.

However, as the program has expanded - it will offer eight classes in the fall - inmates have been able to complete their degrees more quickly. Ramirez graduated in 10 years. And Felix Rosado, a 39-year-old from Reading doing life for a 1995 murder, graduated in 8½.

Graterford's graduates have their own reasons for pursuing degrees. Some of the men, well into middle age, have several children and grandchildren, and want to serve as an example.

"I come from a culture where everybody is predatory," said Slaughter. "You don't look at life like most people do. You look at life like the Gaza Strip."

Prison was where Luis Gonzalez learned his ABCs. Gonzalez, 47, raised in the Bronx, was just 17 when he committed a 1986 murder in Fairhill, for which he was sentenced to life. He's due to be resentenced in October. Gonzalez graduated from the program in 2015 with a minor in history and a marketing certificate.

The program also has inspired some of the graduates to take on leadership roles outside the classroom: Gonzalez gave a TEDx Talk in 2014 at Graterford about education and incarceration.

When growing up in a large family, Rosado said, he was "always the one expected to do the college thing." When he began the Villanova program, he was surprised to ace his first paper and first exam. Rosado said he loved all his classes, but especially sociology and public speaking.

"In high school I used to sit in the back of the classroom and sleep, but here I was always at the front row, eyes wide open," Rosado said. He graduated summa cum laude.

For every member of Graterford's 2016 class, getting a college education is simply a matter of becoming a better man. It's about leaving behind who they were on the streets and "evolving into a human being," Slaughter said.

"It's changing family traditions," he said. "It was the education that liberated women, it was the education that liberated slaves, and it is the education that's going to liberate us in due time. I have that faith."

oexstrum@philly.com

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