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Ashland University's in-prison college program helps NEOCC felons 'be the best version of themselves they can be'

“They’ll just open doors to them that weren’t open before, [allowing] them to be able to take care of themselves better. It’ll allow them to not go back to their old ways," said Natalie Grant-Askew, school administrator at Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown.
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Natalie Grant-Askew, instruction supervisor for Northeast Ohio Correctional Center's college program for inmates, provided by Ohio's Ashland University, poses inside the prison's education center. (Photo provided)

YOUNGSTOWN — Among his mother and four siblings, James Steward III was the first to go to college.

But the 29-year-old Ashland University student hasn’t set foot on the private, Christian school campus — he’s been behind bars for the past 12 years.

Steward, of Youngstown, was one of the first inmates at the city’s Northeast Ohio Correctional Center to enroll in the private penitentiary’s college program for the incarcerated. Inmates eligible for the federal government’s Second Chance Pell Grants can enroll in Ashland’s program to earn a two-year associate degree or four-year bachelor’s degree. Those grants are open to inmates with fewer than 10 years remaining on their sentences and no outstanding college debt.

The Ashland program expanded to NEOCC in February 2020, said Natalie Grant-Askew, the NEOCC program’s instruction supervisor.

“These tools will make them less likely to come back to prison after release,” she said. “They’ll just open doors to them that weren’t open before, [allowing] them to be able to take care of themselves better. It’ll allow them to not go back to their old ways.

Since the inaugural spring semester, nearly 160 NEOCC inmates have enrolled. Of those, about 30, including Steward, continued on to their second semester or beyond. The program is free for inmates, and those who don’t qualify for the Pell grant can get some form of subsidy from prison operator CoreCivic, Grant-Askew said.

“If they haven’t made plans or they don’t have any support when they go back to the community, it’s just more of the same — doors closed; opportunities are few and far between,” she said.

Grant-Askew said many of NEOCC’s incarcerated students were the ones “left behind and counted out” in traditional schooling. Often, a crucial support system was missing from their lives.

“There are so many of them who never had anyone to tell them, ‘I’m proud of you,’ or who never had anyone encourage them to do well or encourage them to go to college,” she said.

Steward didn’t grow up with a father. His mother was around, but she struggled with drug addiction, he said.

“I was always into sports; played football my whole life, all the way up until my grandfather passed. He was my role model — the one that kept me going,” Steward told Mahoning Matters via phone. “The streets took ahold of me after that.”

Steward said he turned to the drug trade to help support him and his younger brother and sister, and eventually fell in with “the wrong crowd of guys.”

Steward has been incarcerated since he was 16. He was charged in the 2007 shooting death of a 19-year-old man along Ohio Avenue and tried as an adult in 2008 on charges of aggravated murder and aggravated robbery.

Steward ultimately took a plea deal that saw those charges lessened to involuntary manslaughter and aggravated robbery, court records show. He was sentenced in 2009 to 18 years in prison and is currently expected to be released in September 2025, state prison records show.

When he gets out, he said he’s looking forward to giving back to the community. He said he wants to form a youth-mentoring foundation called “Boys to Men.”

“I really want to just do it for the ones that don’t got a father. I never got a father when I was on the streets,” Steward said. “I was one of the kids that wasn’t fortunate that I can’t come into the house to a cooked meal. I want to be able to give meals to kids that’s hungry; if they need clothing; and help the schools.

Steward’s communications and business management studies through the Ashland program will also help him launch his food truck idea, which he plans for two years after his release: “Crazy Bagels … breakfast, lunch or dinner served on a bagel,” he said.

Ashland’s incarcerated students start off with basic business coursework — usually just nine credit hours in their first semester. There’s a range of standard college offerings to follow: psychology 101, humanities and various writing and communication courses. After completing 60 total credit hours, they’ll earn an associate degree in general studies; at 120, a bachelor’s degree in communication studies, Grant-Askew said.

Upon release, students are able to continue their coursework at Ashland, she said.

Currently, the courses aren’t virtual, so inmates aren’t actually interacting in real-time with instructors. Ashland’s model has drawn criticism from some who say the education offered is substandard, Crain’s Cleveland reported in January.

At the time, Ashland’s program offered inmates tablets with keyboard attachments to complete coursework. Students now use Google Chromebooks to complete their online coursework and email instructors, Grant-Askew said. But they don’t stay with the inmates when they head back to their cells.

Meanwhile, Ashland University had by January received more than $30 million from inmates’ one-time Second Chance Pell Grants in the first four years since the Second Chance Pell Grants were established, Crain’s reported.

Since 2017, Ashland’s program has expanded to 100 prisons in 13 states, according to a December article from The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism initiative focused on criminal justice. Critics of that program sourced by The Marshall Project also suggested Ashland was doing little to actually help felons re-enter society.

Grant-Askew told Mahoning Matters that NEOCC itself doesn’t have a way to track its students once they leave the prison, though “sometimes we get lucky and they call us back and let us know how they’re doing,” or write letters, she said.

But on the human level, Steward said the program has been transformative for him. The hope of a better life has kept pushing him — and so have Grant-Askew and other support employees at the prison.

“I took the math test five times before I got my GED,” Steward said. “It was the help of Miss Grant for not letting me give up.

“Miss Grant ain’t let up off me. She didn’t quit. I was scared. I was so frustrated. I was so used to failure. It was my second nature.”

He’s now in his fifth semester with the Ashland program and “I love it, to be honest,” Steward said.

Grant-Askew said she and the program’s other support workers at the prison are “very invested” in the students’ success. Her voice beams when she sees the excitement they get from a positive report card.

“I truly feel as the school administrator that when we have an opportunity to help these guys be better when they come back to the community, that’s our obligation here,” Grant-Askew said. “Our job is to help these guys be better and give them every opportunity to do so and be the best version of themselves they can be.”

Justin Dennis

About the Author: Justin Dennis

Justin Dennis has been on the beat since 2011, covering crime, courts and public education. Dennis grew up in Poland and Salem and studied journalism and communications at Cleveland State University and University of Pittsburgh.
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