PENDLETON - Prison can be an education, but usually not in mathematics, music history, geography, cultural anthropology or computer science.
But those college-level courses and more are available at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution - through Blue Mountain Community College - for inmates who set their sights on higher education.
Since the spring of 2000, qualified inmates at EOCI have had the opportunity to earn credits toward an associate's degree through the New Directions Education Project, which provides BMCC college-transfer courses for inmates who have already earned a high school diploma or GED.
"Through these classes, inmates find out that they have the ability to do college work and can actually do something with their lives when they get out (of prison)," said Evelyn Hanks, chairwoman of the board of the New Directions Education Project. "For most of them, it's the first time they've ever succeeded in anything."
Each term, which lasts several months, there are 16 students in each of two courses offered. Classes are taught by teachers from Blue Mountain Community College, who are paid through donations to the project. Classes like math, geography of Oregon, speech, computer science, biology, physics, creative writing, human genetics and cultural anthropology are just a few of the topics that have been offered since the project began.
Each inmate student pays $25 per term, which goes toward the $175.50 it costs to provide the courses to each student. The rest of the funding comes through donations. In December, the Meyer Memorial Trust donated $3,000 to the project, and when the program initially began at EOCI, the Paul Allen Foundation gave $2,500.
Hanks, who taught English as a second language at BMCC for 16 years and at EOCI for 13 years, helped start the project when she retired in 1999. She said it's one of the "most amazing, exciting things I've ever done in my life ... I enjoy seeing the light turn on in their faces when they realize they can do something in their lives."
Inmates are not limited to taking classes for only one term. Inmate Ryan Boe has taken close to 10 courses through the project, and has a cumulative 3.87 grade-point average.
"When I first came here (to EOCI), I didn't even have my GED," Boe said. "Now I'm working toward my degree. It's awesome."
Inmate Naylor Joles said that the program has helped change his state of mind and has motivated him to do better in life. He has a 3.45 cumulative GPA, something he never thought he was capable of.
"This higher education is really something else," Joles said. "It's made such an impact. The people I write to now have even noticed the difference. They ask me, 'Who's writing your letters for you?'"
Inmates aren't the only ones who see a difference. The teachers see it every day in class.
"The best group of students I've ever had is here at EOCI," said Clark Hilden, who retired from teaching at BMCC in 1999 and now teaches geography of Oregon at EOCI. "They're never late, they never skip class, and they really want to be here. I really like teaching here."
To donate to the New Directions Education Project, send funds to P.O. Box 393, Pendleton, OR 97801, or call EOCI at 276-0700.