Article below copyright 2010 by Universitas, the magazine of Saint Louis University. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
An innovative program brings SLU professors behind bars
By Nick Sargent
A far cry from the dark, brutal images of prison you see on TV and in movies, on a cold, early May morning the ERDCC in Bonne Terre, Mo., looks more like a sterile, rural medical complex surrounded by layers of impenetrable fences. Modern brick buildings circle an open courtyard with an outdoor basketball court located in the center of it all.
When prisoners move across the yard, they do so in an orderly fashion. They talk among themselves in small groups, and no one is fighting. Dressed in uniform, the guards don’t yell. They are calm. But it’s clear who’s in charge and who will soon be returning to their cells.
On the far end of the yard sits an unassuming one-story building. Walking into the building as the sun peeks over the horizon on this day is a man dressed in slacks and a sport coat. Dr. Grant Kaplan is the most unlikely looking character at this maximum security correctional center.
He enters with his briefcase and pauses in a makeshift lounge for a cup of coffee after his early-morning, 65-mile car trip from St. Louis. He’s about to begin class on this Friday morning: a discussion about Martin Luther and the Reformation. His students: 12 prisoners with serious criminal records. A few of them are in for life — their crimes so severe a judge decided they can never return to society.
You might think that prison seems like the last place for a college-level theology class. That a penitentiary is the antithesis of intellectualism or spirituality. That students in a prison classroom should be the last people to receive the blessings of an education from Saint Louis University professors volunteering with the SLU Prison Initiative.
Once again, the ERDCC is not what you would expect.“… in prison and you visited me.”
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. —Matthew 25: 35-36
This Bible quote serves as inspiration for the SLU Prison Initiative, which was established in 2007 and has been reaching out to educate prisoners in Missouri ever since. One of the Bible’s most well-known passages, this quote often is used to remind the faithful of Jesus’ instruction that by helping the homeless and hungry of society, believers serve him. Often the final portion of Jesus’ statement is glossed over, by religious and secular society alike.
College education may seem like an unfair benefit for criminals, but for nearly 30 years the U.S. Congress allowed inmates to apply for Pell Grants to pursue degrees. And for good reason. A Texas Department of Criminal Justice study found that the average rate of recidivism — 60 percent — decreases as the level of an inmate’s education increases. Prisoners who earn associate degrees were re-incarcerated at a 13.7-percent rate, those who earned bachelor’s degrees at a 5.6-percent rate, and the study found no recidivism in convicts with master’s degrees.
But in 1994, political pressure caused Congress to eliminate the provision, despite the fact that only six-tenths of 1 percent of Pell Grants were issued to prisoners. Law-abiding citizens were never denied a grant because a prisoner received one, said Dr. Kenneth L. Parker, associate professor of theology and coordinator of the SLU Prison Initiative.
Public outrage, however, won, and within a few years, the ruling helped to kill college-in-prison programs in the United States. By 1997, only eight such programs remained in the country, down from 350 in 1982.
College-in-prison has begun to undergo a renaissance thanks in part to SLU and a program at Bard College in New York. Bard’s program inspired Parker to start the SLU Prison Initiative after he learned about it while watching 60 Minutes.
The 60 Minutes story followed Bard professors who volunteered to teach prisoners. It also told the story of the professors’ efforts to help restore higher education programs in the correctional system.
“I was blown away by the thought of university professors teaching inside prisons. That thought had never occurred to me,” Parker said. “I was struck by the fact that Bard College — a secular liberal arts college — was doing this. I couldn’t help but think to myself that this fits our mission here at Saint Louis University.”
The prisoners of the ERDCC were blown away by the opportunity. In five days, prisoners submitted 300 applications for 15 positions.
In early 2008, with the approval of Saint Louis University administrators and state officials — as well as funding from the Incarnate Word Foundation — SLU began offering a certificate in theology to prisoners. A dozen inmates completed the five-course program in May 2010.
Starved to Learn
When people ask Parker how the professors in the department of theological studies need to alter the content for the prisoners, he smiles slyly.
“We don’t have to make it easier,” he said. “We need to make it more rigorous; the students demand it.”
The syllabus is the same. The tests are the same. On his mid-May trip to the ERDCC, Kaplan even comes to class dressed the same as he would for the class he teaches at SLU.
Kaplan begins the day’s class by asking his students for their reflections on their most recent assigned readings.
Paging through their dog-eared books and pages of photocopied texts, the class discusses Martin Luther’s background and his dissatisfaction with the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century.
During a break, the students express their appreciation for the SLU Prison Initiative and the opportunity to exercise their minds — a difficult activity in prison. These students are starving to learn. The subject matter doesn’t necessarily stir their passions, but academic exercise does. They love the benefits of the liberal arts education they are receiving through the certificate program: refining tools like analytical thinking and writing.
“Over meals, they argue about free will and grace,” Parker said. “Some loved St. Augustine (a theologian and philosopher who was very influential in the development of Western Christianity) and some can’t stand him.”
For the majority of his three hours in the ERDCC classroom, Kaplan holds court in front of his class. All of his students are engrossed in the material. They discuss other theologians, such as John Wycliffe, who disagreed with the Catholic Church. They speak briefly about other Church reformers, including the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola. And they consider the misconceptions of Luther.
“When you normally think of Luther, you think he was anti-Catholic, but he’s not,” a student says. “He was against what was going on. He was pointing out the problems and telling the Church, ‘You must do something about them.’ ”
As Kaplan’s three-hour class sprints along, the classroom’s two small windows offer views of three prisoners on the basketball court in the yard. As the students discuss Luther’s life after posting his 95 Theses, the basketball players shoot air balls. No one in the classroom seems to notice — the game or the irony.Reformation
Before beginning his lesson that day, Kaplan thanked the students for their hospitality when representatives of the William Randolph Hearst Foundation came to visit. Foundation officials had heard about the transformative experience under way at the ERDCC and wanted to experience it for themselves. In March, they toured the prison and sat in on the class.
A few months later, the Hearst Foundation issued a $150,000 grant that allows the SLU Prison Initiative to launch the nation’s first in-prison degree program for both inmates and employees at the ERDCC.
This spring, the University will offer an associate of arts degree to 20 inmates and 20 staff members at the ERDCC.
In a letter to Parker, Catherine Pyke, program officer at the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, said: “In my 23 years as aprogram manager this is one of the most inspiring site visits I’ve ever experienced.”
Even as he teaches the prisoners about Martin Luther, Kaplan and his fellow theology professors involved in the SLU Prison Initiative (Parker, Dr. Ron Modras, Rev. Michael Pahls and Paul Coutinho, S.J.) are conducting a reformation of their own. Emboldened by the personal revolution of their students in the classroom, the professors aren’t content to stop there. They believe they can reform the American criminal justice system.
The original goals of the SLU Prison Initiative were to help inmates who get paroled adjust to society and to make mentors out of prisoners serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Those goals have since grown.
“Serving prisoners remains a priority, but during the course of the certificate program, we found that prison employees often lack adequate access to opportunities for higher education as well,” Parker said. “Our innovative program will serve both populations equally.”
Professors from across the University are joining the theology department in this mission, signing up to teach classes in philosophy, English, communication and mathematics, as well as social and health sciences. Classes will be taught on-site for prisoners, and a hybrid model — on-site and online — will be used for prison staff.
“We can help change the culture behind prison walls just by doing there what we are already doing on campus,” Parker said.
University President Lawrence Biondi, S.J., has supported the SLU Prison Initiative from the very beginning. Before he began his career in higher education, Biondi served for six years as a chaplain at the Cook County Jail in Chicago.
“I know firsthand the hopelessness that prisoners feel, and I know firsthand the hopefulness of Jesuit education,” Biondi said. “This program strengthens our commitment to serve the marginalized in our society.”Graduation Day
On a cool, sunny day in May, the gymnasium of the ERDCC has been transformed. A small group of chairs seat professors, other University faculty and administrators, and 12 soon-to-be SLU graduates. It’s just a few weeks after the class’ discussion of Luther and his Reformation, and just a few days after SLU’s 2010 commencement at Chaifetz Arena. Though the audience numbers just a few dozen supporters, the ERDCC version of commencement might be even more emotional than SLU’s traditional graduation.
The highlight of the ceremony is the commencement speaker: Raymond Scott, one of the graduates.
On this day, he speaks of his apprehension about signing up for the program — of not knowing if he would be accepted. Scott thanks the professors for the opportunity to be part of the class, and for the opportunity to learn.
“The professors had one goal – to teach,” he tells the crowd. “Not only to teach me on a personal and intellectual level, but to teach all of us on a moral and spiritual level.”
Although Scott’s speech is short, it is profound. He makes it clear that the most important thing he learned as a SLU student had nothing to do with the content of the class. Rather, the true lessons were the things he learned about himself.
“I quickly realized that this was less about how I could benefit personally, and more about what I could do with the education I am receiving — how I could help others help themselves,” he says.
“I really had to think about this: What if we at the bottom rung of society could have a positive effect, not only on other prisoners, but on the very society we have been removed from?”
Scott shares a story about telling his son that he picked up cigarette butts for a living. And that until he became part of the SLU Prison Initiative, something had been slowly eating away at him: “… my lack of achievement. My utter sense of failure.”
Recalling Matthew 25, his professors’ Biblical inspiration, Scott thanks them for the gift they presented him.
“Before I met these five extraordinary professors, I was a stranger to myself, to my spiritual self,” he says. “But not anymore. They helped me find dignity again. I am no longer naked. Indeed, they helped clothe me — not only with dignity but with the sense of self-worth that we all hunger and thirst for.
“What you have done here for us — we who have long considered ourselves to be ‘the least of these’ — has had an incredible impact on us. You may never fully understand how much this means.”
A place for learning. A place for hope. A place for new beginning.
Indeed, the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center is not what you would expect.
What is grace?
Last spring, the students in the students in the SLU Prison Initiative were invited to write a reflection on what the program has meant to them. The following was submitted by Timothy McDermott, who has hopes of becoming an ordained minister and is teaching himself Greek so he can read the New Testament in the original text.
What is grace to an offender? For me, the words, “Surely goodness and loving-kindness will follow me all the days of my life,” (Psalm 23:6a) could only apply to a future life, perhaps another life, but not the prison life.
While many prisoners view their incarceration as a sort of time machine that will one day arrive at life as they left it, I quickly recognized that life continued for the incarcerated. Nothing stops time, so nothing stops life. I am not saying anything against my fellow prisoners, for they are adapting to the system — coping with their grief. I decided not to “cope” with cards, weights and sleep. I had dreams of receiving an education when I was released.
With a 20-year dream ahead of me, I began living for it. I studied and prayed every day. Then, opportunities arose in prison! After years of working toward my dream, I began to see my “not yet” become the “here and now.” SLU selected me to enroll in the theological studies program, which has changed my life. God did this. Not only have I developed better reading habits, writing skills and critical thinking skills, but I also have overcome fears. Fears of public speaking have become a thing of the past as I now lead and teach groups of men several times a week.
My experience with the professors and curriculum of SLU has challenged who I am as a person. I have come to have a greater appreciation for others. Grace can be seen more clearly when it is contrasted with condemnation from society, family, staff, even other prisoners. SLU has taught and demonstrated the importance of everyone — even those at the margins of society. As one inside, I can better reach others inside. I can make a difference. I can live. That’s grace.