Harry Krouskoupf could not spell his own name when he was locked behind bars for the fifth time in 2011.
The eighth-grade dropout, now 45, had never been able to fill out a job application, read a newspaper or even order off a restaurant menu.
For much of his entire adult life, he’s been on the wrong side of Ohio’s 39.6 percent recidivism rate — the statistic that measures whether ex-convicts reoffend and return to prison. But he hopes one thing will change that: he now has an education.
“I knew the only way I could stop repeating and being involved in the street life and back in forth in and out of prison was to be able to educate myself,” said Krouskoupf, who is serving a six-year sentence for robbery. “Today, I know I don’t have to return to that life. Regardless of whatever happens from now on, I’ll have an education. You can’t take that from me.”
Krouskoupf is one of a growing number of inmates in Ohio taking classes through Sinclair Community College. Sinclair enrolled more than twice the number of imprisoned students this fall as it did last.
Such jail education programs can help ex-prisoners stay out of jail and find jobs, according to a recent study by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research group.
‘Why some ex-prisoners succeed and some don’t’
The public often forgets that 97 percent of people who are incarcerated are going to be released, said Bob Rice, a criminal justice professor at Sinclair.
The question, he said, is in what condition they will be sent back into communities.
Inmates who participated in education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not and 13 percent better odds of finding a job, the RAND Corporation found. And prison education is cost-effective compared to the cost of reincarceration, the group said.
“Although a number of factors account for why some ex-prisoners succeed and some don’t, we know that a lack of education and skills is one key reason,” their report says.
But several schools, including Wilmington College and Columbus State Community College, shuttered their prison programs last year after several drops in state and federal funding. Six other colleges in Ohio have also closed their prison programs.
The first funding change happened in the mid-1990s when federal Pell Grants for prisoners were cut by lawmakers who had a tough-on-crime stance. Then, Ohio also eliminated its grants for prisoners.
The change to the Pell program “decimated” prison education programs, said Nick E. Smith, policy associate with the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, which advocates for the financial aid to be restored.
It also led Ohio to shift its higher education offerings to strictly “advanced job training” for the state’s prison population, which now stands at about 50,500.
“That became our focus,” said Denise Justice, superintendent for Ohio’s prison education programs. “We said no liberal arts. No more general studies. No more giving degrees, per say.”
Instead, some prisoners within five years of their release date have the chance to earn a certificate from a college that will equip them “with some kind of employable skill,” Justice said.
“Every piece of education we give them is a building block to get out and stay out and be productive citizens,” she said.
‘The tools to not come back’
During his four times in prison, Krouskoupf tried education programs and failed.
But when he entered prison for the fifth time, after pleading guilty to second-degree felony robbery, he knew something had to change.
“I’m in my 40s this time. I knew for sure that I had to turn around and learn to read and write. I’ve got kids and I want to try to make it in society,” said Krouskoupf, who will be released from the Pickaway Correctional Institute in 2017.
In all, Krouskoupf has spent 13 years behind bars for multiple drug offenses, theft and breaking and entering. He never attended high school and never earned a GED. More than a third of prisoners nationwide also lack either credential, according to the The Pew Charitable Trusts.
This time, Krouskoupf did learn to read and write. He passed the GED tests in April. A short time later he started college classes through Sinclair.
“My daughter wrote me. It said, ‘Dad, you can write.’… That was like the most exciting thing for me in the past three or four years,” he said. “My God, I want to cry. How exciting. It dawned on me I can write.”
Through Sinclair, he is now learning computer skills, how to write a functional resume and how to explain his felony conviction to prospective employers. He is earning “B’s” in the classes he takes at night after working full-time on plumbing at the prison during the day.
Cheryl Taylor, who coordinates Sinclair’s prison programs, said those extra skills make a difference.
“We can do these certificates and give them all the academic knowledge possible, but unless they know how to market themselves — and look that employer in the eye and tell them, ‘This is who I am and this is what I have to offer’ — it’s all going to have been in vain,” she said.
Krouskoupf said it was “overwhelming” at first to be in college courses. He had usually worked construction jobs he got by walking up to a site with his tool belt, he said.
“To be able to get a job interview in today’s world, you’ve got to get an education,” he said. “This is for me so when I leave here so that I have the tools not to come back here.”
Taylor said Krouskoupf could also pursue a second certificate, such as training supply chain technician, which is “definitely up-and-coming, and they definitely can get jobs.”
Funding forces changes
Ohio’s prison system has about $2.7 million in special funding for its advanced job training program, Justice said.
The program served about 1,800 students in 2011, which is just a piece of the more than 11,000 prisoners served by some educational program at the prisons including GED services, apprenticeships, career enhancements and more.
Sinclair expanded its program last year and is now in five prisons in Ohio offering 14 different certificates. Its inmate enrollment jumped to 674 this year from 288 last fall, according to the college. Its programs include social service assistant, food service specialist and web design.
But other colleges have closed their programs under reduced funding.
Urbana University cut some of its classes and has also wait listed some prisoners this year at the London Correctional Institution, where it has run a program since 1975, said Kelly Evans-Wilson, Urbana’s director of the Center for Adult and Professional Studies.
In recent years, the university also stopped offering associate degree to comply with the state’s direction.
It now offers two certificates in enterprise management and business entrepreneurship and enrolls about 100 inmates each semester, she said.
Students can pursue an associate or bachelor’s degree at Urbana after their release, or transfer their credits to another school. And some do, Evans-Wilson said.
“You have individuals who they’ve made some bad choices but they are trying to improve themselves and so that’s where education can really be so beneficial, trying to offer them a different path,” she said.
Wilmington closed its program that had run since the 1970s, said Paul Moke, who taught in the program. At its height, the college offered majors in business administration, industrial technology, liberal arts and others.
“I think it did make a difference,” Moke said. “It helps them use their time in prison wisely to prepare for the day when they return to society.”
And that is what Krouskoupf hopes to do.
“I know for a fact I don’t want to ever come back to prison,” he said. “I’ll be happy one day you go through the drive through and you see me standing there. Yeah, I’m the one leading the cash register. I’m the one adding this. That’s the man that I’m going to be. Content. And continuing. I’ll probably be going to college for the rest of my life.”
Video: Watch Harry Krouskoupf talk about what receiving his GED and starting college classes while in prison means to him at MyDaytonDailyNews.com.