The thousands of hits we’ve received – and continue to get – on the article we wrote about Blackstone Career Institute three years ago indicates the appeal of the paralegal correspondence course it offers to those in prison.
In fact, it can change their lives, as it did for Michael Harris, who was incarcerated in Arizona and is now a legal administrator/paralegal at Saldivar & Associates, PLLC in Phoenix. And he’s just one example.
At any given time, more than 1,200 incarcerated students are participating in the Institute’s Correspondence Paralegal Program for Inmates. The old-fashioned paper-based course – no Internet is required – has been delivered to more than 1,800 institutions since the program began in the late 1970s.
Using time in prison to one’s advantage
But back to Harris. When he was sentenced to three years in prison, he was determined to make good use of the time.
“My wife and I made a strategy of how we were going to make this time work for us. I had never been able to return to school to finish a degree but wanted more education,” he says. “So I researched to find a school that would give me something worthwhile and offer a chance to do it through correspondence.”
Although Harris, like many others, had originally signed up for the monthly plan payment, an inheritance his wife received soon after his incarceration helped him pay off the cost of the course in one lump sum, which made things easier. If you pay on a monthly basis Blackstone only sends out the materials once it receives payment, but if the tuition is paid in full at the beginning, the books for the entire course are sent in the initial shipment.
Of course it depends on the person and his or her background, but Harris said he only read five to 10 pages per day and developed a test strategy in which he went through the course work marking the answers to the practice questions. It took him a total of 24 months to complete the course, a bit more leisurely than he could have done it.
“I went through 16 books for the paralegal course. You could easily do one a month very comfortably,” he says.
Making money in prison
Not only did he set himself up for a career once released, Harris also used the skills he gained to make money while incarcerated. He found that several fellow inmates, including himself, needed to file for bankruptcy, and he helped them do it, work which, he says, kept him really busy.
His selling proposition: “By being in there (in prison), I could get the Federal court to waive the filing fee. I would tell guys to give me $200 and I’d get the $335 filing fee waived.”
The bankruptcy filing business even got him the support of prison employees.
“Prison officials were curious about what I was doing so they’d kind of peek in and say, “Hey what’ve you’ve goin’ there,” and I’d explain it. Most of the guards were in financial distress and would start asking me questions, and I’d refer them to online resources. Doing work for them would have created potential conflicts of interest, so I didn’t go there, but through their curiosity they were supportive,” he says.
What did the course mean for Harris while he was in prison?
“It meant that it wasn’t wasted time. While everyone else was counting the days, I was using the time to my advantage,” he says. “It was also very instrumental in keeping my marriage together because in my absence my wife knew I was doing something that was going to benefit us all in the end.”
Prison experience makes better paralegal
And what did it mean once he got out?
Harris had worked for a law firm before he went into prison but at a lower than paralegal level, so the Blackstone paralegal certificate gave him credibility to get a better job.
Because he works in a firm that specializes partially in criminal law, Harris’s prison experience gives him insight that others in his firm don’t have.
“I’m able to connect with the client in a way that the attorney can’t. I’ve been there and done that,” Harris says. “When clients are in custody and I meet their families and I say I’ve been there, they say, “No you haven’t.” But when he finally convinces them that he has, they know he really understands their situation.
Advice for others
His advice for those still incarcerated:
-Structure your time and make it work for you.
-As felons we’ve been selling ourselves our whole lives. Most of us are quite the characters. Take that skillset and turn it into an asset instead of a hustle.
-Get engaged in your community and network through nonprofits. Put yourself out there and make yourself available to others and it’s amazing what comes back when you do that.
-Find an inmate education program