“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.
“It is hard to overstate the benefits of providing postsecondary education to incarcerated students,” according to Brookings Institution authors of a 2021 study, ”The Societal Benefits of Postsecondary Prison Education.”
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