by Jill Ragar Esfeld
LANSING — Like many young people planning their futures, Joel Butler has just completed his associate’s degree and is considering taking some correspondence courses.
He’s very interested in the field of telecommunications and hopes to start a small business someday.
Before he can put his plans into action, however, Butler has more than the usual obstacles to overcome.
First, he’ll need to get out of prison.
“I don’t know when I’m going to get out,” he said. “But I see the board in August of 2012.”
Thanks to Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan., and its Lansing Prison Program, Butler has an excellent chance of getting out, getting a job, and never seeing the inside of a prison again.
The Lansing Prison Program offers an on-site associate’s degree to the inmates of the Lansing Correctional Facility.
Since the program began in 2001, 341 inmates have taken classes, 23 have earned their associate’s degrees, and 155 have been released from prison.
Of those 155, only three (two percent) are back in prison — an impressive number when compared to the national recidivism rate of 25 percent.
Indeed, many studies prove that earning a college degree is the single most effective tool in preventing a return to a life of crime.
“It’s a small program,” said lead instructor and program director Dr. Steve Jansen, a member of Corpus Christi Parish in Lawrence. “But it is a program I believe has the potential to impact people’s lives in a positive way.
“The students are attentive, they’re hungry, and they’re very, very grateful.”
Donnelly College defines its mission simply: to “serve those who might not otherwise be served.”
With that in mind, the college began offering classes at Lansing to fill a desperate need that came about after Congress cut Pell Grants to federal and state prisoners during the Clinton administration.
As a result of funding shortages, more that 350 prison education programs closed down.
Now, even though college education is the single greatest deterrent to recidivism, Donnelly’s program is one of less than a dozen nationwide.
A few years after the program began, the North Central Association accredited Lansing prison as a campus of Donnelly College.
“That meant we could not just offer a few courses there, but we could offer a whole degree,” said Ken Gibson, Donnelly president emeritus and founder of the program. “We could have graduation.”
This past August, nine inmates, including Butler, received their associate’s degrees at a commencement ceremony at the correctional facility.
Speakers at the ceremony included Dr. Steve LaNasa, president of Donnelly; inmate graduate Kenneth Waddell; Roger Werholtz, secretary of the Kansas Department of Corrections; Jansen; and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.
During the ceremony, Waddell spoke for all the graduates when he expressed his gratitude for the tremendous opportunity he had been given.
“I am the first in my family to get a higher education, so this degree means a lot to me,” he said. “I have more pride in myself and a sense of security, knowing I have a better chance at getting a job in the future.”
When the Lansing Prison Program was first launched, Gibson said its greatest obstacle was funding.
Private industries operating within the prison, particularly Impact Design, stepped forward to subsidize a third of the cost. Donnelly raised money for another third, and inmates were responsible for the rest.
In 2004, however, employers decided they could no longer afford to participate, leaving Donnelly to cover two-thirds of the expenses.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice recognized the value of the program by awarding the college a $223,000 grant to support operations for three years.
“We offer to inmates a three-credit class at the cost of what will be, next semester, $196,” said Jansen.
“That includes books and all associated costs.”
Although an incredible savings, it’s still a challenging figure for inmates to raise. Those who work for a private industry within the prison have money on what they call their books, which can be transferred to pay for classes. Others depend on the support of their families.
Classes are held Monday through Thursday in the day and evening. The college tries to have at least 12 students in each class.
Jansen, who started with the program in 2005, has never asked why any of his students are incarcerated.
“I’m deliberately flying blind,” he said. “But I do it because I think that is the best way to go forward with them — to not have myself prejudiced or otherwise affected by what brought them to that place.”
He believes the instructors do more than just teach: They model a life enhanced by education.
“I often tell them that I’m not financially well-off,” Jansen said. “But in many ways, I am very emotionally and spiritually and psychologically rewarded by the opportunity to do something that I love and enjoy and that makes me grow as a person.
“And I think education will give them that opportunity to emotionally and psychologically and personally grow.”
For Butler, it has done just that.
“It feels great — an actual good thing,” he said about getting his degree. “It helped in a way that I’m able to show my family that I’m doing something positive in here.”
The program has changed the atmosphere of the prison as well, by helping inmates get to know one another on different levels.
“We have a nice little intellectual cabal,” said Butler. “I can’t think of another word to use — we get together and we talk about different things.”
Inmates also have been inspired to organize creative activities like talent shows, and they often spend time studying together in the library.
“It’s not like out in the free world,” said Butler. “We do a lot of studying here because we have the time.”
Beyond the gate
This year’s graduation was bittersweet. Next year will be the last year for the Department of Justice grant, so the future of the Lansing Prison Program will once again revolve around funding.
LaNasa said his hope is for the program to achieve sustainability, thus securing its future. One way of doing that is through technology.
“This semester we’re making a fairly sizable investment in technology,” he said, “so we can realize some efficiency and broadcast some courses from here on [the] main campus into the prison, and make more courses available so we can grow the enrollment.”
The college hopes its program will serve as a model to help lower recidivism across the country.
“We got some support right now from the Bureau of Justice and they’re helping to do some PR in their network,” said LaNasa.
“They know the work is great,” he continued, “and they’re trying to help us spread the word about the model in hopes that maybe there are some more communities or institutions out there that might do something similar.”
The program would welcome more benefactors and volunteers, but LaNasa understands it’s a hard sell.
“There are a lot of folks in society today who are of the opinion: ‘Just let them rot,’” he said.
Jansen hopes as word of the program’s success reaches more ears, that attitude will change.
“They are not garbage,” he said. “They are human beings and they, at least in my mind, should be given an opportunity to grow and change — and if it works out, they earn an opportunity to be free and lead lives of dignity and integrity.”
Visiting the imprisoned is one of the seven corporal works of mercy, and Jansen encourages anyone who feels called to the ministry to give it a chance.
“As a person of faith, I have always wanted the opportunity to do something of significance and value that would allow me to be a servant,” he said. “I think that’s at the heart of what we’re taught.
“This opportunity has given me a way to do that, and I feel very fortunate.”
The experience of teaching behind bars has also given Jansen an appreciation for the privileges of his own life.
“When you walk out of there and that metal gate clangs shut, it kind of puts your troubles in perspective,” he said. “And it makes you realize you have a great deal to be thankful for.”
Right now, that metal gate is clanging shut on Joel Butler. But thanks to the Lansing Prison Program, it can no longer shut in his dreams.
“It allowed me to change my focus,” he said. “I don’t just focus on things inside the prison. I look for something in the future now.”
“The program is a beautiful thing we have here in the institution,” he added. “I would hope people would see that it does help rehabilitate and reform us — it’s a big help.”
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