Inmates in Missouri Prison earn College Credit through St. Louis University Education Program
Tags: education, Jesuit, prison ministry, Saint Louis University
A class of 19 inmates, a small sampling of the 30,000 offenders in the Missouri Department of Corrections system, is part of the St. Louis University’s Prison Program, an effort that educators and prison reformers are watching with hopeful, yet cautious, eyes.
“Too many programs, for the last two or three decades, get brought in and then somebody finds something they don’t like about them and they smash it,” said Jason Lewis, deputy warden of the Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Correctional Center, as the prison is called in Bonne Terre, Mo.
In 2008, St. Louis University started offering certificates in Theology Studies at the prison. In March, it expanded to an associate of arts, a two-year degree that will take the inmates four years to finish. St. Louis University (SLU) is one of 28 Jesuit-founded schools of higher education in the U.S.
“We have got to find other ways of dealing with problems in our society besides locking people up,” said Kenneth Parker, a SLU theologian who directs the program. “And that means finding more rehabilitative approaches. And that’s where I think private nonprofits like SLU have a role to play.”
When the initial certificate was offered, more than 300 inmates applied for 15 slots. SLU selected inmates without life sentences and those who tutored or held leadership positions in prison.
“We have a lot to lose,” said student Jonathan Anderson, 30, who robbed a bank in Florissant. “I want to prove that just because we made a mistake, we aren’t criminals forever.”
The program, free to inmates, is supported by SLU, a $150,000 grant from the Hearst Foundation and other donations. SLU has also organized a speakers series at the prison and brought in best-selling authors, jazz musicians and poets. Copies of SLU’s student newspaper are set to be available soon in the prison library.
Scholars continue to point to studies that show education reduces recidivism — the more educated inmates are, the less likely they are to return to prison. And that can also help with the tax bill. It costs $20,863 a year to house one inmate in a Missouri prison.
George Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, is aware of the benefits of education. He said about 1,500 offenders in Missouri get GEDs each year, and there are several rehabilitative and vocational programs.
But other than the SLU program, a smaller effort with a junior college in northern Missouri that’s funded by the U.S. Department of Education, and correspondence courses, college degrees aren’t available inside Missouri prisons.
He requested that the SLU program be available to prison staff, too, and the university obliged.
And although the classes are separate, prisoners and prison staff seem to have similar goals.
“I see it as a great example for my children because I want both of them to go to college, yet I hadn’t been to college,” said Amy Gibson-Kelly, 33, a former corrections officer who now works as a secretary at the Bonne Terre prison. “How can I say, ‘Go, go, go’ when I didn’t? So now I am doing it.”
Inmates such as Courtney Everett, 37, are also grateful for a second chance. He sends his papers home and compares grades with his kids.
“Although we are in prison, we don’t have to act like we are in prison,” said Everett, serving a 22-year sentence for assault and kidnapping. “It keeps my mind out there, and in the mentality I need it to be when I return to society.”
Cory Gardner, 33, was another student who was noticeably engrossed in the course material. He was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1997 shooting death of Christopher Masqua, a teenager from Jefferson City.
The victim’s brother, Stacy Masqua, said in an interview that Gardner shouldn’t get any breaks.
“I don’t think he should have any opportunity like that,” Masqua said. “Why should he have a life?”
But Lewis, the deputy warden, said judges already gave inmates their punishment.
“They are here to learn to do their time and to learn how to get back into the community and make those transitions once their time has gone by,” he said. “As taxpayers, whether we like it or not, 97 percent of them are coming back (into society). How do you want them back?”