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