Somerset County Jail Offers Online College Courses 

Joy Hollowell

It’s not uncommon for inmates at Maine’s county jails to complete their GEDs.

But a new program in Madison is taking that one step further.

Joy Hollowell explains.

After attending two years of college in the 1990’s, Travis Carrigan decided to return to school.

“Just something that I always put off, put off, put off,” says Carrigan.

This past fall, he took three online courses through Kennebec Valley Community College. The school provided scholarships that paid for two-thirds of Carrigan’s tuition. He ended up acing all three classes, earning a 4.0.

“You just wanted to go, go, go and you wanted to do everything,” says Carrigan. “Sometimes you had to put the brakes on a little bit and realize that you are in jail and there are going to be roadblocks.”

Carrigan is one of 14 inmates at the Somerset County jail who participated in the pilot program. Susan Knight, education coordinator for the jail, help spearhead the effort.

“It’s always been more of an approach to help people with their high school diploma. But there’s a critical need, there’s a lot of people who are incarcerated who had started college or are ready to start college-level courses.”

Three core courses were offered. Inmates worked through a secure website, talking only with their instructor and others at the jail enrolled in the course. And, all of their posts are carefully screened. Ryan Ellis took Intro to Psychology.

“We can’t change what we did,” says Ellis. “All we can do is change what we do. And this course takes us out of an environment that isn’t conducive to changing your life.”

A dozen inmates have already signed up for the summer session through KVCC. Knight says she’d eventually like to help other county jails set up on-line college courses for inmates.

“People in the community think we’re spending our money on educating inmates,” says Carrigan. “These people that are seeking further education, they have better outlooks when they leave. They’re paying their taxes, they’re having jobs where they can have medical insurance instead of Mainecare. So in the long run, it’s actually a cost savings.”

One Somerset County jail inmate taking on-line courses, ending up enrolling in KVCC once he was released.

According to Knight, the 14 inmates included three women. The youngest was in his 20s. The oldest inmate taking online college courses was in his 60s and had never before attended college.

Knights adds it’s unlikely the inmates would actually be able to earn a college diploma while in jail since the average stay in Somerset County is typically less than a year.

Penobscot County jail offers an on-line algebra course through Eastern Maine Community College.