UHCL expands missions to educate incarcerated students, adds prof to program
Access to higher education in prison improves the quality of life for those incarcerated, and increases their opportunity to sustain a successful life after release. Since University of Houston-Clear Lake opened in 1974, the College of Human Sciences and Humanities has offered classes in Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities and graduated 600 students.
The university’s commitment to degree programs for incarcerated students is what drew Christina Novakov-Ritchey, the program’s first-ever designated professor, to move from California to join the UH-Clear Lake faculty.
“Dr. Novakov-Ritchey’s connection to prison education was the main reason we wanted her here,” said Glenn Sanford, dean of the College of Human Sciences and Humanities, which directs the Transforming Lives By Degrees program.
“Her experience sets her apart, because this is a different kind of teaching experience than what most academics have,” Sanford explained. “She’s now the first full-time faculty member we’ve had dedicated to the program. We hope this will create continuity and stability as well as adding someone who is specifically researching this traditionally underserved population.”
He said that students in that program will also benefit from her work and the data yielded from her research would strengthen the university’s Criminology and Criminal Justice program.
UHCL’s track record of offering educational opportunities to inmates goes back nearly 50 years; since the university first opened. “I saw this position wasn’t just a prison education program, but a bachelor’s and master’s program,” Novakov-Ritchey said. “I’m so excited to see all the possibilities here.”
Currently, UHCL offers three degree programs at TDCJ’s W.F. Ramsey Unit and Beto and Coffield units for men, located in Rosharon, Texas. Novakov-Ritchey will be teaching in-person undergraduate courses in the Humanities program, and for the first time, graduate courses will be livestreamed for women incarcerated at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Texas.
Sanford said that the Transforming Lives By Degrees program is expanding to include women because historically, the prison population has encompassed mostly men who are serving longer sentences than women. That’s why there have been more opportunities for men than women to engage in long-term education.
“The population of incarcerated women has been increasing, and we need to offer services to them as well,” he said. “There are some other opportunities for women to get their undergraduate degrees in Texas, but we are expanding to include a graduate program for women, which makes us one of the only programs in the entire country offering undergraduate and graduate programs for incarcerated men and women.”
Novakov-Ritchey said that for those incarcerated, support systems like mental health infrastructure and more educational opportunities were desperately needed. “These students have lived generational patterns of poverty, abuse and addition,” she said. “Many have never had a chance at anything. The Transforming Lives By Degrees program at UHCL is a unique opportunity to extend a chance to these people, to help them develop their voice, their critical thinking skills, and their critical perspectives on the world.”
All her courses, she added, were discussion-based. “It’s important to keep that face-to-face contact,” she said. “Even the courses for women that are not in person are live, so students can interact with me directly in real time. UHCL are trailblazers in Texas with this program.”
Sanford said that research by the RAND Corporation showed that for every dollar spent on prison education, $5 are saved on reincarceration costs. “This is a group of people who are taking very positive steps to turn their lives around,” he said. “The requirements for admission, graduation, and tuition payment are the same as for any student.”
Above all, he said the university’s commitment to incarcerated students seeking education was unwavering.
“Hiring Dr. Novakov-Ritchey is a demonstration of our continued investment in our mission as a regional, comprehensive university to serve all the citizens of Texas,” he said.
For more information about UHCL's Transforming Lives By Degrees program, go online.