May 25, 2022
Story and photos by Brandon Steinert
Ellsworth Correctional Facility residents earn high school diplomas, certificates, associate degrees and more through Barton Community College
Ellsworth Correctional Facility (ECF) resident Tyler Armstrong has been incarcerated for nearly five years. Like most at the facility, he will eventually be released back into society. Armstrong’s release date is in June of 2024.
When that date comes, the difference between Armstrong successfully assimilating as a productive member of society or winding up incarcerated again, a well-researched cycle known as recidivism, could be the education he pursued through Barton Community College while behind bars.
Armstrong celebrated the completion of an associate in science degree in liberal studies Wednesday afternoon at the ECF Learning Celebration, the facility’s equivalent of a graduation in partnership with the college.
His plan after releasing is to pursue a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, then pursue a vocation on a race car crew. He said he’s grateful that he could accomplish something while behind bars.
“Prison doesn’t have to be a waste of time,” he said. “We can definitely make the most out of bad situations no matter what they are, especially when there are programs like this offered. I think education is probably one of the best ways to prevent people from ending up on this side of the fence.”
ECF resident Richard Johnson has been incarcerated for nearly 30 years, and he is set to release in 2036. Having dropped out of high school, Johnson’s first step in his education was securing his high school diploma.
“I knew it was going to be kind of tough for me upon being released,” he said. “So, an education is really important. This gives me an advantage. Earning my high school diploma, you know, is the key to my future.”
Johnson hopes to open a gym and a computer repair shop when he is released, and in the meantime, he plans to continue his education by pursuing an associate degree then possibly a bachelor’s degree. On Wednesday, however, it was time to celebrate.
“This is a moment that you only get once in a lifetime,” he said. “I treasure this – I feel elated.”
Johnson and Armstrong were joined by dozens of other ECF residents who received associate degrees, industry certificates and high school diplomas in the last year, all of them with their own unique stories and plans on how to take advantage of their second chance upon release.
After the fanfare of crossing the stage to shake hands and receive certificates, diplomas and degrees, the residents heard from Executive Director of Intuitional Advancement Lindsey Bogner, who oversees the Barton Foundation. She recognized 48 residents who received scholarships since 2020.
Barton President Dr. Carl Heilman left the residents with words of encouragement about their futures, emphasizing the importance of continuing their educations and the pursuit of deeper purpose in life. He said the room was filled with pride for what the residents had accomplished, and hope for what comes next in each of their lives. He asked them to ponder what education means to each of them before suggesting an answer.
“It gives you something valuable that can never be taken away,” he said. “You can’t sell it. You can’t lose it. It’s in you. It’s part of you. And when it’s part of you there’s a flourishing that goes on in your mind, your soul, your heart. Education leads to confidence. You have confidence, and from confidence comes hope.”
For more information about Barton’s BASICS program and how education in correctional facilities impacts society and the economy by reducing crime and recidivism, visit bartonccc.edu/breakthecycle.