This issue of Connections highlights the increasing number of programs offered by Jesuit colleges and universities for incarcerated individuals. It’s timely that as our schools increase their programs for this population, a new organization is also developing: the Jesuit Prison Education Network (JPEN).
JPEN is a new initiative of the Society of Jesus, coordinated by Rev. Thomas B. Curran, S.J., the former president of Rockhurst University, who is currently based at Regis University. You will learn about Fr. Curran’s work with both institutions in this issue, as well as other faculty from Jesuit schools who are involved with JPEN.
In this issue’s Government Relations report by Jenny Smulson, you will learn about the history of education for incarcerated individuals in the United States, including the Second Chance Pell program, established during the Obama Administration in 2015.
Prison education programs are beneficial for incarcerated students, as well as members of the college and university communities involved with teaching classes. Christopher Haw, Ph.D., of The University of Scranton, says, “The payoff of the Prison Education Program has been enormous for the University in terms of the students and faculty growth. In light of the Society of Jesus’ Universal Apostolic Preferences, it is a mission-positive experience, extending education to underserved populations, to those who want and need it most, while also enlivening professors’ passion for teaching.”
We hope that you enjoy learning about these programs, and that the start of the Spring 2023 semester is going well for all of our readers.
By Deanna Howes Spiro, Vice President of Communications, AJCU
Regis University Prison Education Program Benefits Students Inside and Out
“Due to a multitude of poor life choices, at the age of twenty-five, I was arrested and incarcerated … Taking full responsibility for my life and holding myself accountable to do the work necessary for success is my top priority. . I am applying for enrollment to Regis because a formal education will support my goal of being of service to my community…”
That excerpt is not from a typical college application essay.
But Jason Bondurant isn’t a typical college student. Inside the clattering, clanging halls of Colorado Territorial Correction Facility in Canon City, Bondurant is what’s known as “life without.” That’s shorthand for the sentence handed to him in 2007: Life without the possibility of parole.
Nevertheless, Bondurant got accepted to college. In 2022, he became one of the first incarcerated students enrolled in Regis University’s Virtual Inside/Out program. Launched by the University’s School for Professional Advancement in cooperation with the Colorado Department of Corrections, the program offers five liberal arts courses, one at a time, in accelerated eight-week terms, to up to twenty incarcerated men and women at four Colorado prisons. Students must be approved for participation by prison officials.
Through internet and provided laptops, incarcerated students learn simultaneously with students who attend class in person at Regis’ northwest Denver campus.
Bryan Hall, Ph.D., philosophy professor and dean of Regis’ School for Professional Advancement, said the program benefits Regis students as well as prisoners: both gain insight from the different perspectives and lived experiences of classmates they encounter on the other side of computer screens. Virtually mingling incarcerated and non-incarcerated students “creates a radically diverse and powerful learning experience” for both groups, he said. “Programs like this do a lot to promote human dignity and transform the people who go into them.”
Though the number of people held in United States prisons and jails declined in 2019 to just under 2.1 million (according to the U.S. Department of Justice [DOJ] Bureau of Justice Statistics), the country’s incarceration rate remains the world’s highest. Eventually, the majority of these people will be released. In fact, DOJ and the RAND Corp. estimate that some 700,000 people are released each year from U.S. prisons, more than half of whom will return to prison within three years. Often, communities don’t want them as neighbors—rarely do they want to hire them.
“We don’t rehabilitate people in this country,” said Rev. Thomas B. Curran, S.J., of the St. Peter Faber Jesuit Community at Regis. “We incarcerate. We warehouse then we hope that when someone is released, they desist in committing a crime.”
Inside/Out’s incarcerated students arrive with an assortment of educational backgrounds. A few have taken college classes, often in prison. Many have a GED, or high-school equivalency certification. Some have neither. The breakdown is a general representative microcosm of prisoners. A majority of those serving time in U.S. prisons – 64 percent – have high school diplomas, according to a 2019 study by the Vera Institute of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. Of course, that means 30 percent have not graduated from high school – a rate more than twice that of the general population.
Inside/Out students start their college careers in Assistant Communications Professor April Samaras’ class, where they learn how to learn: how to study, how to craft an essay, how to keep a journal. Woven through it all is Regis’ guiding Jesuit value, Cura Personalis. For many, the concept of care for the whole person is a novel one. “We do a lot of reflective journal writing, talking about where they are, where they want to be,” Samaras said.
The results can be almost as rewarding for the instructor as for the students. “Many of them step into an uncomfortable space and really open up,” Samaras said.
According to Hall, Regis instructors don’t receive additional pay for Inside/Out teaching, but the hours count toward their contractual obligation. Last December, the first group of Inside/Out students to complete their classwork put on graduation gowns and collected the Certificate of College Readiness during a ceremony at the Colorado Territorial Correction Facility.
As the Canon City Daily Record reported, Jason Bondurant spoke to the group about the green scrubs that are his daily prison uniform. “I wear these clothes that represent the worst day of my life.” But the graduation gown he wore that day represented potential, and hope. “This is who we have become,” he said.
That worst day was Aug. 25, 2005. Bondurant went to the home his former girlfriend, the mother of his three young sons. There was a confrontation, and Bondurant shot and killed the woman’s stepbrother and a man Bondurant believed she was seeing.
Should the loved ones of those dead men question the investment of resources and care in Bondurant, Fr. Curran said he would answer simply that the prison work is about “a conversion of humanity. We don’t help ourselves by saying ‘I’m not going to see that person as a human.’ In doing that, we diminish our own humanity. Let’s make a collective effort to make sure this doesn’t happen to another family.”
In his former role as president of Rockhurst University in Kansas City, MO, Fr. Curran launched a partnership with the Missouri Department of Corrections to provide educational opportunities for incarcerated women in that state. In addition to his work at Regis, he now serves as coordinator of the Jesuit Prison Education Network (JPEN), which includes six colleges and universities.
“My goal is to get all 28 AJCU institutions to adopt a prison,” Fr. Curran said. The network can take steps toward that goal with its $290,000 share, over three years, of a $1.2 million grant from the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI). The money will go toward prison education necessities like technology, teacher pay and administration costs. But it won’t fully cover those costs, which is why Fr. Curran and Hall say they are looking for additional funding.
For 26 years, incarcerated students were barred from receiving federal financial aid, known as Pell Grants. In 2020, Congress reversed the ban, a move the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) had advocated. Hall said Inside/Out is applying for a share of those funds.
Jesuits trace the tradition of educating the incarcerated to St. Ignatius himself, who was imprisoned. One of Ignatius’ alleged crimes was preaching without the proper credentials – potential heresy. “During his imprisonment, he realized education and credentials would give him greater authority,” Fr. Curran said.
Prison education worked for St. Ignatius, and it often work for the less divine as well. Individuals who participate in post-secondary prison education programs are 48 percent less likely to return to prison, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology. They are 12 percent more likely to get a job.
There are quantifiable results of prison education. Then there are impacts that can’t be measured. Jason Bondurant likely will never put what he learned in Inside/Out to work in a profession on the outside. Still, he has said that education has meaning for him.
“Jay feels like he has a role. That he’s been called to help those incarcerated not to come back,” Hall said.
Bondurant is working toward a philosophy degree, which he hopes to apply to his work in a restorative justice program.
As he stated in his essay:
“Even though I am trapped in this world, condemned to push a stone up a mountain for eternity, I am happy. My effort is not futile.”
By Karen Auge, Editor, Regis University Magazine
Georgetown Creates New Bachelor’s Degree Program for Incarcerated Students
Growing up, Dorain Grogan never pictured himself as a college student. Now, he’s in the classroom four days a week, reading Plato and Frederick Douglass and working toward a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown.
Grogan was one of twenty-five incarcerated individuals accepted into the first cohort of Georgetown’s new Bachelor of Liberal Arts program at the Patuxent Institution, a prison facility in Jessup, MD. He almost didn’t apply: It took an encouraging phone call with his father to convince him to submit his essays and application in Fall 2021.
“Initially, I didn’t think that I would be enough to make it. I didn’t think I had much of a chance,” Grogan says. “Being accepted into the program reaffirmed that I am capable, and I am enough.”
For Grogan, the experience of being in a college classroom – even within the walls of a prison – has been life-changing. “Programs like this humanize us. We often forget we’re human,” Grogan says. “There’s good within me and others that we can still grasp.”
A Bachelor’s Degree in Prison Georgetown launched its new degree program at the beginning of 2022, creating a significant higher education opportunity for individuals incarcerated in Maryland. The program is run by the Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI), which offers education and training to open doors for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals in Washington, DC.
Last fall, PJI expanded the program with a second coed cohort — an extremely rare learning environment in U.S. prisons systems — offering the same bachelor’s degree opportunity to both men and women in the same classroom.
Georgetown President John DeGioia said the bachelor’s degree program represents the university’s commitment to advancing its Jesuit mission beyond the Hilltop. “This new Bachelor of Liberal Arts program is an expression of our university’s deeply held values — our commitment to education, service and the common good — and we are honored to welcome these new students as members of our Georgetown community,” DeGioia said.
Each semester, students take two classes with Georgetown faculty and have access to additional academic support. After completing the degree’s core requirements, students choose from three majors — cultural humanities, interdisciplinary social science, and global intellectual history — and tailor their studies with electives. It will take most students about five years to complete the degree.
The program seeks to create a lasting foundation for academic, professional and personal growth and achievement — educational access that is proven to significantly reduce recidivism, said Marc Howard, director of the Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative.
“This degree program is a model for how universities can bring transformative education opportunities into prison and support second chances,” Howard said. “We are excited to welcome new talented students into the classroom and continue Georgetown’s mission of intellectual inquiry and service to others.”
Bringing Jesuit Education to Prison The bachelor’s program expands Georgetown’s Prison Scholars Program, which has offered credit-bearing courses at the Washington, DC, jail since 2018. Students take classes in liberal arts topics through the Georgetown College of Arts & Sciences while they await trial, serve short sentences or prepare to return to their communities after a longer period of incarceration in the federal prison system.
Colie “Shaka” Long, a program associate for PJI, took courses in the Georgetown Prison Scholars program at the DC Jail and found a sense of freedom in education long before he was released from prison in July 2022.
“I used my education to find my liberation even though I was confined,” he told students in the Scholars program at the recent end-of-semester celebration at the jail. “Four months ago, I was in the same jumpsuit. Being in prison is beyond your control, but being a prisoner is optional.”
In addition to educational programs in prison, PJI also offers programs that prepare returning citizens for careers in law and in business and entrepreneurship. Georgetown students also have the opportunity to participate in PJI’s work through the University’s Making an Exoneree course, an intensive semester in which students reinvestigate decades-old likely wrongful convictions, create short documentaries about the cases, and work to help bring people home from prison.
The Benefits of Education in Prison For students, Georgetown’s bachelor’s program is a rare and welcome opportunity to continue their education, become part of an academic community, and achieve their personal and professional goals.
For Grogan, his classroom experience in prison has been “eye-opening and revelatory.”
Prior to the program, Grogan said he grappled with self-doubt in prison when he was criticized for doing things he enjoyed, like reading, watching anime or teaching himself Japanese. But his love of learning and curiosity led him to apply and be accepted into the first cohort of the program out of more than 300 applicants from across the state of Maryland. The program helped reinforce his own path, he said.
“This program has affirmed that I’m doing the right thing,” he says. “This has allowed me to really be myself.”
Assistant Teaching Professor Emily Hainze, who leads the writing program at the Patuxent Institution, says Grogan has become a valuable member of the classroom community in her writing courses. “Dorain is a careful and creative thinker,” Hainze says. “His classroom presence is focused and thoughtful, and in our discussions, his insights help us see a text from unexpected angles, whether we’re discussing a recent graphic memoir or a 19th century autobiography.”
As he moves forward in the program, Grogan hopes he is also paving the way for other incarcerated people pursuing their own educational goals. “I can create my own path,” he says. “I want to be a beacon for others … and I want to be able to open doors for others.”
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the Prisons and Justice Initiative’s original article on Dorain Grogan. Click here to learn more about PJI’s work and impact. All photos above contributed by Georgetown’s Office of Strategic Communications.
Contributed by the Georgetown University Office of Strategic Communications
Seeding Fertile Ground Through Scranton’s Prison Education Program
I often call to mind Jesus’ “Parable of the Farmer Scattering Seed” when I think about teaching theology as a professor at The University of Scranton. To me, the story urges us to not grow discouraged in scattering as many seeds of insight, passion and scholarship as we can among students, knowing that not all seeds will take root.
Yet in the past few years since starting and running Scranton’s Prison Education Program, offered at the State Correctional Institution in Dallas, PA, I’ve found that prison is one of the most abundantly fertile grounds in education. The several professors who have taught there so far, including myself, say it evokes renewed passion for education. We find it the highlight of our week – indeed, for many, of our careers. Yet another has said, “This has renewed not only my career, but my life, giving me new meaning.”
We have found students there to be among the most avid and engaged students we have taught. They eagerly look forward to assignments and enthusiastically engage in discussions. Students there all nodded in agreement when one described incarceration as “living in an information desert,” a dehumanizing drain on the mind and soul. Often seeing education’s benefits with a greater clarity than our more privileged students might, they genuinely want to learn, viewing the classes as a godsend. Our students at Dallas are an inspiration to teach and it is a wondrous privilege to count them among our students at Scranton.
Prison Education Initiative After a few years of logistical preparations, Scranton’s Prison Education Program began in Fall 2021. Through courses taught onsite at Dallas by full-time University professors, students can earn an associate of arts degree in liberal studies in just over two years. Courses include writing, math, literature, physics, history, theology, psychology, and more.
Scranton now has twenty-seven students enrolled in the program, with the first cohort of eleven students set to graduate in December 2023. The students have done exceptionally well, earning Dean’s List status at a rate higher than our regular on-campus students in classes of the same stature and rigor. I advise professors teaching at Dallas – nine throughout a year – to employ the same material, standards, passion and expectations they do on campus.
For the “Introduction to Christian Theology” course I recently offered there, I used the same slides and syllabus as I do on campus. However, I allowed more time for discussion; for a key feature of Dallas students is not so much that they are incarcerated as that they are adults – who have plenty of life experience and interest in discussion.
Wide Diversity of Opinion in Engaged Classroom Discussions While my course’s rigor and content was largely the same, the experience for me was a unique, refining fire, keeping me on my scholarly toes. I run a provocative course, where we discuss topics like Christ’s enemy-love in contrast with patriotic militarism and the myth of redemptive violence (this was a hard sell); Christ’s crucifixion as compared with lynching (triggering many culture war topics on racism); and the ecological crisis and Laudato Si’, and other political implications of theology. While a certain shy, mild homogeneity can characterize the average campus classroom discussion of these topics, in prison, the diversity of beliefs and convictions is intensely elevated. In the same room, one finds emphatic atheists, devout Muslims, members of the Nation of Islam, Protestants, Catholics, “Odinists,” and others. Some rage against the carceral machine while others, surprising to me, defend conventional “law and order” motifs one might find in right-wing discourse.
But my way through this was not to water everything down or cater to all of the different parties. Instead, I had to drive forward with honest candor, being myself, but more keenly aware of my own blind-spots and biases.
With the parable of the sower again in mind, it worked quite well, perhaps at the modest success rate of sowing seeds on rich soil. While the discussion of racism and theology proved among the most turbulent parts of the semester, I still found it all an enlivening joy and blessing to uniquely interrogate topics I have spent decades of my life studying and teaching.
A Vibrant Mission-Positive Experience More than a dozen University faculty have now taught in the program, and everyone has found the experience to be inspiring. “It is exhausting and exhilarating at the same time,” said Christie Karpiak, Ph.D., professor of psychology, of the three courses she has taught at Dallas. “The students there are fully formed adults with varied life experiences and vastly different viewpoints. The experience has been fantastic.”
“Teaching in this program fills your mind and fills your heart,” said Declan Mulhall, Ph.D., professor of physics and engineering. “I am humbled by how genuinely appreciative these students are. They treated me warmly. They brought me into their lives and trusted me. It is truly a moving experience.”
Dr. Mulhall confirmed the teaching environment is vigorous and vibrant. “It makes you a better teacher. The stakes are high for them. They want to learn. Through this program, you are making a difference in the lives of people. It is really the bare minimum we can do to help them.”
The payoff of the Prison Education Program has been enormous for the University in terms of the students and faculty growth. In light of the Society of Jesus’ Universal Apostolic Preferences, it is a mission-positive experience, extending education to underserved populations, to those who want and need it most, while also enlivening professors’ passion for teaching. Indeed, I see why some schools brand these programs as partially about “faculty enrichment.”
Prison Education Programs Poised for Growth In the coming months, changes in Pell grants will go into effect that will extend access to education programs for inmates. I would encourage colleges considering starting prison education initiatives to connect with those experienced in running programs. A new Jesuit consortium, the Jesuit Prison Education Network (JPEN), has been building up through the leadership of Rev. Thomas B. Curran, S.J., and is worth plugging into. There are unique complexities involved in setting up and offering these programs, such as security logistics and interfacing with a Department of Corrections. Speaking to others with experience has certainly helped me to anticipate, overcome and at least endure the many challenges one encounters, in farming such rich soil.
By Christopher Haw, Ph.D., Director of the Prison Education Program and Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, The University of Scranton
An Education Experience Like No Other
While Matt DelSesto ’12 was studying human development and philosophy at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, he participated in the University’s popular PULSE program, which combines classroom learning with service placements in Greater Boston. His posting was at Boston’s Suffolk County House of Correction, a medium-security prison; his supervisor was Jim DiZio, the prison’s education director, and a 1990 Lynch School alum.
The placement ended nine months later, but DelSesto’s interest in prison education, and his relationship with DiZio, had just begun. More than a decade later, DelSesto is the driving force behind two BC-prison educational initiatives: The Inside-Out Program, which connects BC students and incarcerated individuals in the study of criminal justice, and the recently launched College Pathways Program, which helps incarcerated men and women navigate the logistics of higher education following release.
Now a part-time faculty member in the sociology department, DelSesto coordinates and teaches in both programs, strengthening BC’s link with the wider community, and opening up access to transformative learning experiences for students of all backgrounds.
“It’s amazing what he’s doing,” said David Goodman, the Lynch School’s associate dean for strategic initiatives and external relations. “None of this would have happened without him; he’s the initiator, the catalyst, and the energy behind it all.”
The original Inside-Out Program began 25 years ago in a Pennsylvania prison and has since grown into an international network of more than 200 correctional and higher education partnerships. DelSesto initially encountered it while working at New York’s Rikers Island jails, and was struck by the model’s power to promote meaningful dialogue between those with diverse backgrounds and life experiences. When he eventually returned to BC to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology, he contacted Goodman to discuss launching an Inside-Out course at BC. His next calls were to DiZio and Sociology Professor Stephen Pfohl, who were eager to collaborate; in 2017, the group was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Hearst Foundations to activate their plans.
“I thought the whole idea was good but the selling point for me was that incarcerated individuals would actually become BC enrollees,” said DiZio. “They get BC credits and a transcript; that’s powerful.”
One year later, the first iteration of “Inside-Out: Perspectives on Crime, Corrections, and Justice,” appeared in the BC course catalog, open to students from three schools, as well as eligible men and women at the Suffolk County House of Correction. The first cohort of twenty students (ten each from BC and the prison) gathered inside the correctional facility in Fall 2018.
Dongjin Vasquez, one of the first “inside” students to enroll, recalls feeling “unsure about how these BC students would view us…(since we have) much different backgrounds compared to them.” While Vasquez had previously attended a local community college, some of his peers had never taken a college class; some BC students had never set foot in a prison.
DelSesto’s discussion-based course was designed to eliminate barriers and encourage students to share academic and lived experiences, and to learn from each other. Since he began teaching the course, it has never failed to achieve its objectives.
“Over the course of the semester, the group really learns as peers,” he said. “People come from different perspectives and that contributes to our understanding of an issue. A lot of inside students have experiences that aren’t reflected in academic research, and that raises questions that pushes everyone’s knowledge.”
BC student interest in the course has skyrocketed since it was introduced, which Goodman attributes to a growing relevance of criminal justice issues (many students became engaged after reading about the Boston College Prison Education Program, which launched in 2019) as well as an appreciation for experiential learning. “They know the difference between learning about, and learning within, and immersing themselves in it,” Goodman said. “I think there’s a real hunger for more applicable, vital, and alive versions of learning, where you’re literally set up to get in touch with your assumptions, and how different life experiences lead to very different ways of seeing, feeling, and being in the world.”
For some students, the course has had a lasting effect on their academic and career trajectories. Encouraged by his experience and the credits he earned through Inside-Out, Vasquez re-enrolled at his community college after release and received his associate degree in Spring 2022. He recently became a case manager at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, where he supports people struggling with mental health and substance use. In the near future, he hopes to pursue a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. “The Inside-Out Program made me believe that people can change the current system,” he said. “It all starts with changing our perspective on it.”
Sheridan Miller ’20 was inspired to pursue a career in prison education after enrolling in the course in Fall 2019. As a Lynch School student studying juvenile justice, she was familiar with the school-to-prison pipeline and other curriculum topics, but it was the unique environment that elevated her learning to a new level.
“It was one of the best BC classes I took because of the depth and breadth of the conversations, especially with my inside peers about their educational journeys and their daily life within the carceral system,” she said. “At BC there’s a lot of emphasis on being men and women for others and doing service, but sometimes you’re disconnected from the people you’re really hoping to serve. This class wasn’t service; you were having conversations.”
Two years after graduating, Miller is the assistant director of policy and research at the New England Board of Higher Education, where she leads a grant-funded initiative convening regional stakeholders involved in prison higher education programs. This past fall, Miller enrolled in a master’s program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she’s studying education policy. Although unsure about her professional career, she wants to continue to improve and expand programs that bring higher education to students behind bars. “It’s the biggest passion I have in education policy, thanks to the Lynch School and the real experience I got with the Inside-Out Program,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges Miller faces in her current role is also one that DelSesto’s newest program, the College Pathways Program, is designed to address: How to ensure incarcerated students who enroll in higher education programs reap the benefit of their experience following release. At the Suffolk County House of Correction, prisoners serve terms of fewer than three years, which isn’t sufficient time to earn a degree. In the past, DiZio has partnered with an outside organization to provide college counseling services, but after the arrangement fizzled during the pandemic, he approached DelSesto and Goodman about starting something more sustainable.
“Our response was ‘Of course,’” recalled Goodman. “And then Matt does what he does so well: he just ran with it. I think it’s a great example of listening to our partner’s needs.”
The College Pathways Program launched in Summer 2022 as an eight-week, non-credit course designed to provide practical information about the college admissions and application process. Each week explores a different topic—from financial aid to selecting a major—and participants explore how college fits in with their long-term personal and professional goals. Twelve students have already received completion certificates, and a second session is underway.
For DelSesto, teaching the course has been a natural extension of his Inside-Out work, where inside students often seek his advice on their educational future, given their limited resources. “There’s clearly a need for space to talk informally about these college logistics,” he said. “We’re trying to do more to formalize the college advising and mentoring structure, so this course is a big step towards that.”
DelSesto maintains contact with some of the students who have passed through his programs (Vasquez has returned as a guest speaker on multiple occasions), and takes pride in the accomplishments of “inside” and “outside” alumni. He posts two sets of office hours: one at the House of Correction and another at BC, while seeking new ways to connect both worlds. During the pandemic, for example, he launched a virtual film and speaker series related to topics contained in the Inside-Out curriculum.
“I don’t know many people who could do what he does,” reflected DiZio, who has worked in prison education since 1992. “He’s quiet, but committed. He’s passionate, but he doesn’t overdo it. He just really cares.”
By Alix Hackett, Senior Digital Content Writer, Boston College
Through Companions at Chillicothe Program, Rockhurst Heeds Call to the Margins
In 2017, Craig Watz, J.D., was an adjunct faculty member in criminal justice when he heard the initial presentation about a plan to provide college courses to staff and incarcerated individuals in the Chillicothe Correctional Center, a women’s state-run facility about an hour and a half northeast of Rockhurst University’s Kansas City, MO campus.
Watz, like many other faculty members that day, raised his hand to be a part of the program, crowding around a table after the meeting to learn more. He explained, “Teaching criminal justice, I had a strong interest in providing an education to all sorts of individuals. That was what drew me to a career in teaching in the first place.”
Eventually, Watz was asked to be the program’s director by President Emeritus Rev. Thomas B. Curran, S.J., and the program that eventually became known as Companions at Chillicothe launched in 2018. It has since grown and evolved as the needs of its students — and interest from the facility and faculty — have pushed it in new directions. Offerings have grown from the initial core, Jesuit liberal arts courses, such as science, English, philosophy, and theology.
During the pandemic, the program found a way to persevere when many similar programs shut down entirely. Most recently, the program began to offer associate degrees to its students and was named a participant in the federal Second Chance Pell Experiment, allowing its incarcerated students to qualify for federal educational funding. In other words, it’s succeeded beyond many expectations, and Watz said that success is a testament to the vision of its founders, the drive of its participants, and the desire from all sides to see it succeed.
“I think that’s the way we like this program,” Watz said. “That we bring in all these different ideas and we then figure out what works. One of the things that I think is amazing is that every time we go to the prison with a request, they seldom, if ever, have said no. They’ve said, ‘Let’s figure out a way to make this work.’”
Many studies show that prison education programs help reduce recidivism among those who are eventually released. That is in part, Watz said, the hope here. But the program’s purpose is also greater, echoing the Jesuit call to the margins and its educational legacy. Watz said, “The concept that we shared early on was education is something that can benefit everyone no matter where they are, and that these individuals who are incarcerated for the remainder of their lives — as some of them are — then serve as mentors and as role models, and as leaders within their institutions. And I have seen that firsthand.”
Vermonn Roberts, a student in the incarcerated cohort, said being a part of the program has led to an increased sense of purpose, making her more aware of how she can make a difference. While she said she hopes to build on her education for her own benefit should she be released, she is happy to be able to use what she’s learned to better those around her.
“Your life isn’t over because you’re in prison or you made a mistake. I’m here today, part of the Rockhurst program, and they’ve loved us even in this place, this world where we’re considered to be the worst part of society,” she said. “This has helped me gain self-confidence where I can work on the person that I am and have confidence in the abilities that God has given me and share that with other people.”
Watz said that across every course offered, all of the students — the incarcerated cohort in particular — are eager to jump in and learn. Matt Schmidli, MFA, assistant professor of film arts, taught an introductory acting course in Fall 2022 – a new offering for the program. As an actor whose job it is to be able to quickly access strong emotions, he said hearing the incarcerated students’ stories and understanding their circumstances led to some heavy moments. But he said he was surprised by how eager they were, especially for a course that required them to put themselves quite literally onstage.
“A lot of them were excited to get to play,” he said. “I could tell immediately that they really wanted to use their imaginations. It’s like they’ve been yearning for that. And that’s awesome — that’s what you need.”
Watz said in addition to its full-time faculty, the partnership with the center’s leadership helped the program continue virtually through the pandemic and paved the way for an English course where students on the Kansas City campus aided their incarcerated companions in Chillicothe for a research paper, and a criminal justice course that included students from both places learning the same material simultaneously. For the incarcerated students, feeling that connection represents a sense of regaining some of what they’ve lost.
“We have a tendency to think most people categorize us a certain way, and we stay in that category, and we’re there for life, even if we are released,” said Lisa Suter, one of the students. “The individual professors and the University’s staff who come in talk to us and treat us as companions. As a student who is getting an education, it makes me feel like a human being again. I feel like I’m more than a name than the number I was assigned when I came to prison.”
By Tim Linn, Director of Communications, Rockhurst University
Saint Louis University Prison Education Program Creates New Paths Forward
For nearly 15 years, the Saint Louis University (SLU) Prison Education Program has contributed to creating a world where everyone has access to quality and sustainable higher educational opportunities regardless of their involvement with the criminal justice system.
SLU’s Prison Education Program comprises three components: an on-site, fully accredited Associate of Arts degree program for incarcerated individuals and prison staff, a Prison Arts and Education Program, and a College Preparatory Program.
“Our students are more likely to be first-generation college students,” said Julie O’Heir, program director. “Often, this is their first opportunity to experience a high-quality education.”
SLU’s efforts to educate incarcerated individuals began in 2008 when a small group of faculty — inspired by the University’s Jesuit mission — began holding theological studies classes with fifteen incarcerated men at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (ERDCC) in Bonne Terre, MO. Participating students had the opportunity to earn a certificate in theological studies from SLU.
In 2011, SLU began offering a fully accredited Associate of Arts degree to both incarcerated individuals and prison employees. At that time, SLU was the only on-site program in the U.S. serving both incarcerated individuals and prison staff. The first cohort of students — twenty-three incarcerated men and prison staff — earned their associate degrees in 2015. A special graduation ceremony was held at the prison, where SLU President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D., delivered remarks. Prison staff graduates were also invited to participate in SLU’s midyear commencement exercises.
Today, the program enrolls 40 students — 20 incarcerated people and 20 Department of Corrections employees — every four years. The program includes both for-credit courses through the University’s College of Arts and Sciences and not-for-credit educational experiences. The students receive the same instruction, in the same classes, and from the same faculty members as students enrolled on SLU’s St. Louis campus.
Daniel Smith, Ph.D., associate professor of theological studies, is among the numerous SLU faculty who have taught in the program. He said that the nine weeks he spent teaching for the Prison Program were transformational and one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences he’s ever had as a teacher.
“As a New Testament professor, it was incredibly illuminating to read the Gospel stories through the eyes of prisoners, corrections officers, and other staff of the ERDCC,” Smith said. “Moreover, awareness of how our nation’s prison system affects the lives of human beings who live and work in correctional institutions has also interested me in the growing movement toward prison reform.”
In addition to the associate degree program, SLU founded a Prison Arts and Education Program in 2011. The program provides humanities-based workshops and a speaker series. And since the program is available to the entire prison community, it reaches the greatest number of participants.
Events have included performances by singer-songwriter Will Oldham, guitarist and folk musician archivist Nathan Salsburg, and the Chamber Music Society of St. Louis. There have also been readings by award-winning writers Henri Cole, Alison Rollins and Phong Nguyen. Workshop topics have included yoga, drawing, financial literacy, entrepreneurship and masculinity.
To build upon the associate degree and arts and education offerings, SLU launched a College Preparatory Program in 2016, offering pre-college courses for incarcerated people that help prepare them for future college experiences in prison or upon release. That same year, SLU also began offering its college prep and arts and education programs at the Federal Correctional Institution in Greenville, Illinois, which houses approximately 1,000 adult men in a medium-security prison and 350 adult women in a minimum-security camp. The expansion made SLU one of a few college-in-prison programs in the country working in both state and federal facilities, as well as in two different states.
O’Heir says the skills developed through pre-college and college coursework create a more socially just living and working environment inside the prison, making possible employment opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable. Education also prevents recidivism, with O’Heir noting that no incarcerated person who completed the SLU program has returned to prison after release.
For prison staff, access to education and advancement opportunities in employment remains limited due to few campuses in rural communities, the rising cost of college tuition, and stagnating wages. O’Heir says offering prison employees opportunities for a liberal arts education can transform their lives and benefit the daily experiences of the incarcerated men and women they supervise.
Since its inception, 35 incarcerated individuals and 23 staff have earned an associate degree through SLU. Upon their release, two of those students have received bridge scholarships to continue their education toward a bachelor’s degree at SLU. Both are enrolled part-time and began during the 2020-21 academic year.
“We’ve had a significant number of other alumni who went on to obtain bachelor’s degrees through other correspondence programs while they’re still incarcerated,” O’Heir said. “We have one who earned a master’s degree and started a Ph.D. program and is now at SLU. Two are starting master’s degree programs at SLU in January.”
Most of the 2.2 million men and women incarcerated in the United States did not have access to quality educational opportunities before their incarceration. “Because more than 95 percent of these men and women will return to the community, it is a benefit to everyone to offer them a chance at a high-quality education,” said O’Heir.
By Bridjes O’Neil, Communications Specialist, Saint Louis University
Loyola Maryland Faculty Help Reduce Recidivism and Give Hope to Inmates
In one of the great ironies of his life, Arlando “Tray” Jones, III experienced a kind of liberation while living behind bars and barbed wire.
Confined to the Maryland State Penitentiary in Baltimore for a 1985 murder he says he never committed, Jones began studying philosophy with Drew Leder, Ph.D., professor of philosophy at Loyola University Maryland, in the early 1990s.
Leder was part of a team of faculty members from the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area who taught college-level, non-credit courses in Maryland prisons—first at the Maryland State Penitentiary (now closed), and then at the Jessup Correctional Institution in Anne Arundel County.
“We were able to travel the world through discussion,” remembered Jones, a 54-year-old native of East Baltimore who was released from the Jessup Correctional Institution in 2022 after serving more than 37 years in Baltimore, Hagerstown, and Jessup prisons. Jones had been sentenced to life plus 20 years but was resentenced in July 2022 to time served. “We studied classics like The Odyssey and The Iliad—things that people like us in the prison system had never been exposed to before.”
Discussions, which Jones said could be quite animated, centered on great thinkers such as Epictetus and Nietzsche, Eastern texts such as the Tao Te Ching, and modern classics including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
“It gave me an ability to define my circumstances rather than have my circumstances define me,” said Jones, who also studied with Rev. Timothy Brown, S.J., associate professor of law and social responsibility in Loyola’s Sellinger School of Business and Management. “That classroom was like a citadel for learning, a place of great debate.”
National Leader Leder, who for decades has been an advocate and scholar for bringing education to prisoners, called mass incarceration in the United States “not only ineffective, but immoral,” for prison environments provide little stimulation and access to resources. “Philosophical tools offered by Western, Asian, and African philosophers speak to the existential struggles these individuals have to deal with,” Leder said. “How do I make life meaningful in this kind of environment? How do I evaluate and change previous patterns of behavior so I can remake myself? How do I find peace and meaning within myself even if the outside world is labelling me basically a worthless individual?”
Leder helped launch the Jessup Correctional Institution Scholars Program in 2009, an initiative through which Loyola professors volunteer at the prison to teach non-credit classes in a variety of disciplines. At its peak, the program educated 170 inmates and included more than a dozen Loyola faculty members.
Through Loyola’s Bridge Project, which Leder also helped design to bridge college campuses and prisons for mutual education, Loyola students studied side-by-side with inmates as co-learners and participated in book drives for prison libraries.
Today, due to the pandemic, faculty are prevented from teaching in the Jessup Correctional Institution; about five years ago, even before the pandemic began, new prison policies ended the presence of Loyola students in the prisons.
Expanding Opportunities Leder, who co-wrote a book with inmates called The Soul Knows No Bars: Inmates Reflect on Life, Death, and Hope, said he’s proud that Loyola has planted the seeds for the expansion of educational opportunities in prisons over the last several years.
Since 2012, Goucher College has offered classes at the Jessup Correctional Institution and the University of Baltimore has done so since 2016. Georgetown University, where Jones serves as program associate for its Prison and Justice Initiative, offers a Prison Scholars Program that provides college-credit courses at the D.C. jail and a full bachelor’s degree program at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup.
“In many ways, Loyola’s involvement opened space for other institutions,” Leder explained.
One of the key initiatives of the Bridge Project is a brochure produced by Loyola faculty to help prisoners learn skills for meditation. The brochure, which has been distributed to more than 10,000 prisoners around the country, includes information about Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and non-religiously affiliated mindfulness. It connects inmates with correspondence courses and programs to assist in developing a contemplative, meditative practice while in prison and includes an abbreviated version of St. Ignatius’ Examen.
Jessica Locke, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy, who contributed to the brochure, first reached out to prisoners long before she became an academic, running a weekly social justice personal development group at a juvenile detention center in Colorado. At Loyola, she helped develop a philosophy course called Justice and Mass Incarceration. “The course was an inspiring blend of activism, rigorous academic work, and the Jesuit ethos of social justice and collective action to create a more just society.”
Jesuit Legacy The aforementioned Fr. Brown, who grew up in a small Ohio town where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed, said it’s vital for Loyola to be involved in the education of prisoners. Not only is it a matter of social justice, but Jesuits have a storied connection to prisons.
Early Jesuits ministered in the prisons of Italy, Fr. Brown said, and the Jesuits’ founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, himself was locked up in an Inquisition prison in Spain. Jesuit martyrs were imprisoned in England during the Reformation; in more recent times, Rev. Walter Ciszek, S.J., endured a Siberian prison camp for 23 years, and several American Jesuits have been imprisoned for their actions against war and nuclear weapons.
In his teaching in Maryland prisons, Fr. Brown said he makes clear that what Loyola offers is a true Jesuit education that insists on the same academic rigor demanded on the Evergreen campus. He admitted he has a reputation as a “really tough teacher who doesn’t put up with a lot of crap.” Yet he also enjoys being able to laugh and joke with the inmates.
“I really tried to step it up for them,” said Fr. Brown. Many of the people he’s met in prison have inspired him—so much so that he saves the essays he’s assigned to inmates over the years.
“The biggest challenge—and many prisoners will tell you this and are angry about this—is that many of them come from schools with awful discipline,” Fr. Brown said. “Discipline is probably the secret to a good education, and I think they find the Catholic approach to learning very attractive.”
By George P. Matysek, Jr., Contributing Writer, Loyola University Maryland
This issue of Connections elevates several meaningful programs at Jesuit colleges and universities that educate incarcerated students. AJCU institutions pursue these programs in the context of our mission and the Universal Apostolic Preferences: prison education programs are in service to others, the marginalized of society, and extend an invitation to walk with the excluded.
Prison education programs are the right thing and the smart thing for all of us to invest in. We know that a Jesuit education is a call to human excellence, demonstrating a commitment to meet the intellectual, spiritual, social, and emotional needs of students. We know from an economic perspective that education is a powerful equalizer, one that our schools believe should be extended to those beyond the privileged and powerful. A strength of the Jesuit network is that we share a singular mission and apply that collaboration to advance the greater good. It is with this energy that Jesuit colleges and universities seek to expand and improve prison education programs.
While much of the effort to establish and grow prison education programs comes from individual schools, the federal government has a long and impactful history in this space. AJCU has a history of advocating for increased federal resources to help more incarcerated students have access to a post-secondary education.
The passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965 made college more accessible to low-income students, including those in prisons. As reported by the Prison Policy Initiative, “By 1982, 350 college-in-prison programs enrolled almost 27,000 prisoners (9 percent of the nation’s prison population), primarily through Pell Grants. … By the early 1990s, it is estimated that 772 programs were operating in 1,287 correctional facilities across the nation.”
In 1992, amendments to the Higher Education Act (HEA) prohibited incarcerated persons serving without parole or sentenced to death from receiving Pell Grants. Two years later, an amendment to HEA attached to the Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act (Crime Bill) banned all prisoners from receiving Pell Grants. While the Pell Grant is an income-based program, available to students with significant economic need, many incarcerated persons would be eligible for the program if not for their status. This legislative change decimated prison education programs. According to a briefing by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), as reported by the Prison Policy Initiative, “By 1997, ‘it is estimated that only eight college-in-prison programs existed in the United States.’ The remaining programs were those that received financial and volunteer support from other sources.”
Advocates worked during this long period to inform members of Congress about the value of education to the prison population and for the nation, calling for the reversal of the prohibition of Pell Grants to incarcerated populations. Many education organizations, including AJCU endorsed Sen. Brian Schatz’s (D-HI) Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act (first introduced in 2016 and each subsequent session of Congress), legislation that repealed the Pell ban and restored the ability for incarcerated individuals to access higher education. AJCU, together with colleagues from the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, engaged in strategy discussions with the Senator’s staff to help advance that legislation.
Over a decade later, through the U.S. Department of Education’s Experimental Sites program, selected schools were able to access Pell Grants for eligible incarcerated students. The aptly named Second Chance Pell program was established in 2015 by the Obama Administration and continued under the Trump Administration. Altogether, more than 200 institutions of higher education were invited to participate in the program. Through 68 active programs sponsored by post-secondary institutions, approximately 17,000 participating students have earned approximately 4,500 degrees or credentials.
As a result of the FAFSA Simplification Act of 2020, beginning in July 2023, any public or private non-profit post-secondary institution will be able to go through the process of establishing an approved prison education program. The rules to establish and administer a prison education program include: demonstrating that institutions of higher education are in good standing without any sanctions or penalties for five years; receiving a determination from the correctional agencies that the proposed program is “operating in the best interest of students”; ensuring credits gained from the program are transferable; and confirming that incarcerated students in a specific program are eligible for licensure or career upon completion of their degree.
While the requirements seem straight forward, there remain questions and concerns about implementation. The Department of Education issued final rules for the program in October 2022. Those regulations go into effect in July of this year, but there is still much work to be done to understand the process for approval, some of the specifics around the criteria for approval, and interactions with other provisions of law from HEA and how they will apply to new educational sites in prisons.
The federal government’s role will make a significant impact on the availability and quality of prison education programs—AJCU will be active in our advocacy on this issue. Rev. Thomas B. Curran, S.J., former president of Rockhurst University, was recently named the coordinator of the Jesuit Prison Education Network (JPEN). His leadership will be invaluable in guiding and directing the work for our Jesuit colleges and universities.
Prison education programs yield significant, positive outcomes including reduced recidivism, more successful re-entry to communities, better rates of post incarceration employment, and reductions in cost to the government. They are also life-changing to individuals who seek a turnaround in their lives. Shared as part of A Story to Tell, one participant in a prison-based education program wrote, “Without that college education, I would have either died or remained drugged out and incapable of normal functioning, possibly indefinitely. I had no “time” to get in trouble when I was constantly in class, studying, writing papers, or working on projects. My studies occupied my time in a way that made the time actually matter. The time meant something to me, and it meant something to others. I would gain far more than several degrees. I gained insight, knowledge, and experience. Things I will always have that cannot be taken away from me.”
This reflection is testament to the power and grace of an education.