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Tarrant County College instructors teach their first set of classes for people in jail

A photo of Carolyn Choate, a white woman with gray shoulder-length hair and freckles. She smiles for the portrait with her hands clasped at her front. She's wearing a leopard print shirt in front of a busy backdrop covered in little technological illustrations, like keyboards, USB symbols and gears.
Miranda Suarez
Carolyn Choate stands in a conference room at Tarrant County College on Dec. 7, 2023. She's been teaching one of the first ever college courses for people incarcerated in the Tarrant County jail system.

People in Tarrant County’s jails can now take classes behind bars, through a partnership with Tarrant County College.

The Next Phase Program is open to people who are in jail for low-level, nonviolent crimes, according to TCC. Prospective students can choose from three programs: welding, business and an office professionals' course. People can start the classes when they’re in jail, and if they get released, they can finish on the outside.

Jessie Galloway, a government instructor at TCC’S South Campus, taught a college preparedness course in the Next Phase Program’s first eight-week semester this fall. The classes can help people start on a new path after their release, she said.

"All working together, we can divert them out of this revolving door that so many get trapped in the criminal justice system," Galloway said.

Education is a good way to keep people from ending up behind bars again, studies show. On average, people who participated in education programs while incarcerated had 43% lower odds of rearrest or reincarceration than their counterparts who did not participate, according to a 2013 analysis from the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research institute.

"I'd much rather, as I'm sure so many people would, see my tax dollars go into an education program to help people support themselves and their families, rather than building more prisons or more jails,” Galloway said.

Other large Texas counties, like Dallas and Harris, also offer classes for people in jails.

A photo of a silver sign on a concrete walkway that reads "TARRANT COUNTY COLLEGE TRINITY RIVER CAMPUS." Three people in professional dress stroll past the sign, with large manicured hedges in the background.
Cristian ArguetaSoto
Fort Worth Report
Tarrant County College is offering the courses in the jail for free, TCC Connect instructional designer Carolyn Choate said.

For Tarrant County’s Next Phase Program, students in the business course get college credit, TCC spokesperson Cecilia Jacobs explained over email. Welding students start their classes virtually in jail, and if they continue their program in-person upon their release, their coursework is converted to credit, too.

Carolyn Choate taught her college preparedness class for the Next Phase Program 100% virtually. Choate works for TCC Connect, the college’s online learning program, and she also helped design the jail courses.

Choate taught like she was her students’ pen pal, because they couldn’t talk or video call. She sent long messages of feedback to her students instead, who she called “the hardest working group” she’s ever seen in 25 years of teaching.

"This has actually been very rewarding for me,” she said. “It gave me a sense of deep hope that there are programs for these students who are interested in this."

Galloway taught her class in-person twice a week at the Green Bay Jail in north Fort Worth, working with her students on time management and study skills, and walking them through what TCC offers its students in terms of clubs and academic advising.

Teaching in jail did come with some “hiccups” Galloway had to work around, she said. Six of her 12 students cycled out of the jail during the semester. She couldn’t assign articles to read online or YouTube videos to watch, because internet access in jail is restricted.

Galloway made paper copies of her class materials, but then she realized staples aren’t allowed in jail, she said. She ended up finding a staple-free stapler.

"It's been a good professional challenge for me to kind of readapt and readjust and remember how to do things the old-fashioned way, but also take new methods and adapt them to the jail setting,” Galloway said.

Galloway said the Next Phase Program will continue with a second semester this year.

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Miranda Suarez is KERA’s Tarrant County accountability reporter. Before coming to North Texas, she was the Lee Ester News Fellow at Wisconsin Public Radio, where she covered statewide news from the capital city of Madison. Miranda is originally from Massachusetts and started her public radio career at WBUR in Boston.