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For Carlos Sessions and 18 others who graduated from Lino Lakes prison's new college programs, the celebration meant a little more than it might to a typical student.

Sessions, 52, dropped out of high school when he was 17, and quickly got his GED from a community college. But he said it felt like "cheating" since he wasn't walking across the stage with his classmates. He received an associate's degree in prison at Oak Park Heights, but he said it wasn't as fulfilling as receiving his bachelor's last week from Metro State University.

"It felt like someone telling me, 'You earned this one,' " Sessions, who has been in prison since 1998, said in a phone interview. "It was a culmination of the last 25 years."

The 19 inmate graduates at last Tuesday's ceremony at Lino Lakes made up the largest graduating class since 1994, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections. It was the second graduating class as part of the Transformation and Reentry through Education and Community (TREC) program, which launched in 2021.

The program is a partnership between the prison, Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Metro State University and the University of Minnesota. It gives inmates at Lino Lakes access to a much wider selection of college classes than in the past.

Before TREC, inmates had access to one "correspondence" course each semester, which had no face-to-face interactions with a teacher. It took much longer to complete a degree.

In the new program, instructors from Minneapolis College and Metro State come into the prison to teach classes. Interest has grown: What started with 34 inmates in 2021 had grown to 120 this past year, prison education director Randall Bergman said.

The program offered 19 courses this semester, Bergman said, up from an initial three.

The prison's culture and atmosphere have changed since the expanded offerings began, Bergman said, as more of the population focuses on studying and improving themselves.

"We've made this change to provide, as best we can, a college experience while behind bars," Bergman said. "It takes a little extra (work), but it's worth it. I see students asking, 'Can I get to that computer lab?' or 'Can our group study together?' "

The goal of the program is to equip inmates with tools to succeed after their release, and to reduce the chance of reoffending.

According to a 2019 RAND study, inmates who participate in education programs have a 13-percentage-point reduction in their risk of returning to prison. It also found that every $1 invested in prison education can reduce incarceration costs in the near future by $4 to $5.

The program attempts to offer resources other college students might need, giving them access to computers for work or personal tutors if they need it.

Sessions, who was convicted for murdering a woman in Minneapolis in 1998, said the program has given him a more positive view on the education system than he had growing up in Dallas in the 1970s. He has also become a tutor for other inmates.

"I no longer believe I'm learning from my enemy to defeat my enemy, I'm learning so I can make the world a better place by sharing what I have to learn," said Sessions, who studied educational leadership, psychology and family studies. "The results are the same but the intent is different."

The classes also help give structure to the inmates' days and help their time incarcerated pass by. Sessions estimates he spent about eight hours per day on his classes and work, often staying up late at night to finish assignments.

"I'm like, 'It's been four years already?' " he said.

Sessions and Jamar Brown, 22, who received an associates degree in philosophy from Minneapolis College, both said they think the program is helping reduce the likelihood that inmates will reoffend once they are released.

"It helped me see life as bigger than what I thought it was," said Brown, who is serving a sentence for second-degree unintentional murder as a 17-year-old.

He hopes to go on to earn a bachelor's in prison, and one day to work to become a professor.

At its inception, the TREC program was primarily funded for its first three years with $2.3 million in philanthropy from the McKnight Foundation and the Ascendium Education Group. Additional funding has been given by the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the partner colleges. The DOC committed around $450,000 for the initial three years, according to a spokesperson for the agency.

Going forward, Brown said he hopes more prisons adopt college programs to help inmates improve..

"I hope it's contagious; we have to come out better than we were," he said. "Our life is not on pause because we're in prison."