Local Ministries

Prison program is at heart of Donnelly’s mission

From left, Ahmad Rayton, Laurence Elnicki, Malek Brown Jr. and Simon Angilda Jr. listen as Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann addresses them during the commencement ceremony for the class of 2024 Donnelly Prison Program graduates on May 22. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Jay Soldner
Special to The Leaven

LANSING — Ahmad, Laurance, Malek and Simon are four recent Donnelly College graduates, yet they’ve never set foot on Donnelly’s Kansas City, Kansas, campus.

They all attended classes, held study groups and completed coursework from a different campus — the razor-lined, guarded and fenced-in grounds of the Lansing Correctional Facility (LCF).

The four men — Ahmad Rayton, Laurance Elnicki, Malek Brown Jr. and Simon Angilda Jr. — graduated with associate degrees in business.

The commencement ceremony for the class of 2024 Donnelly Prison Program graduates took place in the visitation room at LCF on the morning of May 22. The room is not too far from what you might imagine if you’ve never been inside one — and not too dissimilar from what you see in movies.

After setting off the walk-through metal detector with his pectoral cross, Archbishop Naumann is checked again with a hand-held metal detector. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

One side of the room is lined with stalls and phones mounted on the wall next to thick, thick glass, with phones and chairs on the other side of the glass. Opposite the wall of phones are a couple of vending machines with soft drinks and snacks.

The graduates were dressed in traditional cap and gown over their blue jeans and T-shirts. Three of the men wore red sashes over their gowns, representing them as first-generation college graduates.

Three wore gold and purple ropes over the gown, signifying their membership in Phi Theta Kappa honor society.

A small section of family and friends of the graduates were gathered in the room to witness the ceremony. Also present at the graduation were the prison’s warden, Jesse Howes; deputy warden Ryan Reece; Donnelly College in Prison Program director John Hewitt; Donnelly president Msgr. Stuart Swetland; Donnelly’s assistant vice president of student affairs Dr. Mary Pflanz; Donnelly’s chief operating officer/dean Lisa Stoothoff; and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.

Waiting for the security guard on the other side to open the door, Archbishop Naumann and John Hewitt, Donnelly Prison Program director, converse before the next security checkpoint. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Donnelly began offering classes at the prison in 2001. Since then, 38 men have earned their college diplomas. Earning a college degree is the most effective means to lower recidivism. Inmates who earn an associate’s degree are around 85% less likely to return to prison, while those who receive a bachelor’s degree are more than 95% less likely to return, according to research conducted by prisonstudiesproject.org.

Msgr. Swetland knows well the data on recidivism rates and is pleased to see the students’ dedication to their studies.

“It is such an honor and a joy to see our Donnelly students at Lansing Correctional Facility graduate,” he said. “Many do so with honors, because they dedicate themselves to reading everything and fulfilling all the assignments. We know that this Donnelly education will serve them well as returning citizens and greatly reduces the likelihood of their return to prison.”

The graduation itself reminds the Donnelly president of the Gospel of Matthew’s 25th chapter and its relation to the mission of Donnelly College.

“I so clearly see the presence of Jesus when I go into Lansing Correctional Facility,” said Msgr. Swetland. “Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25 that when we visit or serve those who are incarcerated, we are actually visiting him. At graduation, we are able to honor the work that these students have accomplished and the wonderful faculty and staff from Donnelly who instruct and serve them, the families that support them, the volunteers who pray with them and the Lansing staff who make these educational opportunities possible.

“Our College in Prison Program embodies Donnelly’s mission to serve those who might not otherwise be served.”

Malek Brown Jr. (left) and Simon Angilda Jr. both admire their diplomas from Donnelly College, earned through the Donnelly Prison Program at the Lansing Correctional Facility. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

The two years of taking college courses and studying also helps the men stay out of trouble in the prison. 

“I’m thankful for those that was by my side helping me. I’m just so grateful because this program has helped keep me out of trouble, you know. Being in prison, little small things get to us, but staying focused on my education — academics — has really kept me out of trouble and kept me focused,” said 35-year-old Angilda.

Brown was also grateful for the opportunity to get an education, which helps alleviate some of the day-to-day hardships of being in prison.

He said that when he first arrived at the prison, he was “nervous, anxious, you’re trying to figure it out at that point — you don’t know what lies ahead.

“You go through the justice system and then, once you end up in places like this, you kind of go through the motions to see what’s next. They hand you a bed roll, they assign you a room with some guy that you’ve never seen before — so, a bunch of nerves.

“Once you get to know the officers,” Brown continued, “once you get familiar with names and places, find your way around this place, I think that’s when the light starts to click on — you know — ‘OK, I’m here, this is what I got to do.’ So now, you know, you find places like education, re-entry, and start finding classes and job opportunities and you find yourself consumed in those things. I’m constantly in education. It’s been my home away from my cell.”

From left, Laurence Elnicki, Ahmad Rayton, Malek Brown Jr. and Simon Angilda Jr. enjoy some cake with Sister Sharon Hamsa, OSB, following graduation at the Lansing Correctional Facility. Sister Sharon, who is a math tutor at LCF, made the graduates a cake and some cookies, with their names on them. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Brown said he felt good about accomplishing the goal of getting a college degree, and he credited and offered thanks to those around him. “These dudes, man, we walk together, we help each other out.”

Donnelly College accounting adjunct instructor Darcy Oetting said she teaches the same coursework at the Donnelly College campus as she does at Lansing and added, “Some of my most dedicated students are here.”

“I’ve heard feedback from them — they are getting their degree and they’ve worked hard for it, but more than that, it gives them a bigger sense of purpose and it shows them that they can do whatever they want to do,” she said. “They had a goal, they worked their butts off, and they get to receive a degree.

“It’s the most rewarding job I’ve ever done.”

Brown was also thankful to have dedicated educators teaching the coursework.

“Miss Darcy — she’s a great lady, she’s special — she is very helpful,” he said. “She’s a great professor. She is always well-prepared. Her being well-prepared prepared us for what was in front of us. And she understood that we were going in places where we hadn’t been — in academics.

“She’s the type of person that you want around.”

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College, talks with Malek Brown Jr. after the graduation ceremony. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

The program director, John Hewitt, considers his role one of service and honor.

“I have been in higher education as an instructor and as an adviser for many years,” he said. “Rarely have I been able to see the direct results of what I do, the impact of my work, as I see here at LCF in moments like this graduation. It is an honor to serve these gentlemen, who are determined to make a new life.”

Elnicki said he keeps busy with schoolwork and a job on the inside.

“I work eight hours in the metal fabrication shop, and then, I come in from work and I go straight to class every day,” he said. “There are days I have two classes in one day, so I have full days. Then when you’re back in the cell, you’re studying, you’re doing your schoolwork.”

The schoolwork and the job, said Elnicki, help keep him on the right path.

“It’s easier to get into trouble in here than out there,” he noted.

Successfully completing the coursework and earning the degree gave all four men a boost of self-esteem and self-worth.

“I feel different,” said Elnicki. “I feel good.”

“I know that I worked hard, and what I wanted to accomplish, I did — which was doing something different in life,” he added. “I feel like more of a man instead of a boy.

“I was childish — that’s what led me to prison. I grew up rough, poverty, trauma — all of those things that I went through in life — I feel like hold me down. But working through that stuff, I’m looking forward. And I think I’m going to be able to be a contributing part of society.”

Angilda, too, was elated.

“Ah, man, I feel great. I like what the man said when he was giving us lessons about how Jesus died for us,” he said.

 “I still got dreams,” Angilda continued. “I’m in the midst of writing a book, too. It’s called ‘I Messed Up Bad, but God Cleans Up Good.’ I’m working on getting it published right now. It’s an autobiography of my life — how God has changed me and how he’s still working on me.”

Angilda hopes his life experiences can be helpful to others who might be starting or living a criminal lifestyle.

“I wish I could take it all back,” he added, “not because I’m locked up, but because I hurt people and I affected people — the bad choices that I made, the people that I chose to hang around with.”

Brown had these words of advice for anyone considering straying off the straight and narrow.

“Think again,” he said. “Think again what lies before you. Because what could lie before you is this here.

“Think of your family. Think of those you love. Think about those opportunities that you may miss out on if you put yourself in that situation.”

But Brown’s final thoughts were on a happier note.

“Donnelly has been an experience,” he said. “It has!”

To view more photos of the graduation ceremony, click here.

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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1 Comment

  • In tears!
    Great story. Thank you people of the Archdiocese of KC and (Abp) Super Joe Naumann…. one of the best!
    I remember his consecration in The Lou!