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A shot at redemption

Donnelly program gives inmates a chance to earn an associate’s degree while in prison

by Kara Hansen

KANSAS CITY, Kan. college in Kansas City, Kan., on Feb. — “Show me the money” is what former Donnelly College president Ken Gibson used to tell the warden at Lansing Correctional Facility when asked about offering classes to the inmates there.

“I said, ‘It’s a wonderful thing and it would really fit our mission,” recalls Gibson. “‘But show me the money. We can’t take money out of the pockets of our current students in Wyandotte County!’”

It took a few years and the dedication of a number of people, but Gibson is now seeing the money — in the form of a federal grant in the amount of $223,000.

At a press conference held at the 27, Donnelly announced it has received a grant from the Department of Justice to support its associate degree satellite program at Lansing Correctional Facility. Classes have been offered at Lansing since 2001.

“Donnelly’s program at Lansing is simply an extension of our original mission to serve those who might otherwise go unserved,” said Gibson’s successor as president of Donnelly, Dr. Steven LaNasa. “We know that education exerts a powerful effect on the lives of those who pursue it. The Lansing program recognizes that education can help transform the lives of these students, and that those who make the commitment deserve the chance to pursue a college education.”

The benefits of an education to those trying to put their prison time behind them and succeed on the outside cannot be overestimated. More than 325 inmates have taken classes through Donnelly since the program was launched, 155 of whom have been released.

Of those, only 25 percent returned to prison, compared to the national average of 52 percent.

But more importantly, most of those returning do so for short terms of only 30-90 days for parole violations.

Only two percent — or a grand total of three graduates of the program — have actually returned to prison having been convicted of a new crime.

“This is a good program that helps so many people and really saves the country money in terms of reducing prison time,” said Gibson. “The program has a real commitment to reducing recidivism because we know people are much less likely to return to prison once they’ve gotten an education.”

Inmates pay a third of their tuition to demonstrate commitment and personal investment in their education, but additional funding is needed to offset the remaining tuition and program costs.

Senator Sam Brownback was instrumental in helping Donnelly secure the funding for the grant from the Justice Department. The senator said it took over three years to garner the bipartisan support needed to obtain the aid. He took a vested interest in the program, he said, after his own voluntary incarceration in two different prisons in an attempt to better understand what prisoners were experiencing.

“People in prison did bad things and they need to do time for their crime, but they are not without redemption,” said Brownback. “We have a problem when we start looking at people as problems. We need to treat them with dignity and help them become better people.”

Donnelly’s program is one of only a few like it in existence, and one of only two in the state of Kansas.

“Part of the church’s mission is to make real and tangible the love of Jesus Christ in the world today, and this program fits that mission so well,” said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.

“We’re delighted the church is a part of this and we’re very proud of the program and everything Donnelly has accomplished.”

The grant money will be distributed equally each year over the next three years. The assistance came at a critical juncture in the life of the program, which has recently seen a rise in class enrollment at the prison due to the introduction of live video conferencing, which permits classes to be held simultaneously in more than one location throughout the facility.

“This program helps our inmates address some of their shortcomings in education as well as in their self-concept,” said Dave McKune, warden of Lansing Correctional Facility. “For many, this is the first time someone has believed in them — that they can accomplish positive things. They start to see their self- worth for the first time.”

About the author

Kara Hansen

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