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An intellectual escape

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Prison is rarely seen as a place of higher education. Instead it’s often thought of as a place of struggle and violence. Yet at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (ERDCC), a prison situated an hour south of St. Louis on the outskirts of Bonne Terre Missouri, a community has formed that aims to light an intellectual fire and change a damaged system.

“I enrolled in [SLU’s] Associate’s degree program because I did not want my incarceration to be a waste of time,” Richard Scott, a student and inmate at Bonne Terre, wrote. “While prison offers a few productive opportunities, it does little to help prepare one for a career upon release,”

Scott is joined by 15 other inmates and 12 Bonne Terre employees entering their last year in SLU’s only Associate’s degree program. The Prison program is the only one in the country to offer degrees to staff members at a prison facility. The curriculum for both groups is identical to the core requirements for an Arts & Sciences degree.

Scott Berman, an associate professor of philosophy, taught Ethics at Bonne Terre last January. He found that the discussions he had in that class gave him new and valuable perspectives on issues he’s been thinking about for years.

“It was a powerful experience for me both as a human and a professor,” Berman said.

It seems everyone who talks about the program has shared in a sense of personal growth.

“The biggest reason [I enrolled] was I wanted to show my son… if I can go to college [he] can go to college,” Sergeant David Ezersky said. Ezersky moved to a different facility during his classes but has been able to stay enrolled at SLU. “I want to say it’s changed me, and I know it has. I just think I’m a better person for taking these classes.”

Kenneth Parker, program director and associate professor of theology, first thought of developing a prison education initiative when he saw a 60 Minutes segment about the Bard Prison Initiative, which currently has 275 incarcerated men and women enrolled in both Bachelor’s and Associate’s degree programs. Six months and many meetings later Parker was teaching Theological Foundations at Bonne Terre as the beginning of a certificate in theology.  His experience was more positive than he could have ever imagined.

For Scott, the certificate was more than five theological studies courses

“The self-affirmation that comes with hard work and accomplishments is something that everyone needs,” Scott said. “If we never do anything positive, if we see ourselves in a negative light, then how are we to be better people?’”

Scholars and prison reform activists have put forth post-secondary education as a means of cutting down on the cost of the United States’ correctional system for years, and statistics show that the current system isn’t working. Nationwide roughly two-thirds of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within three years, and three-quarters were arrested within five years according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. SLU’s program hopes to make prison a place of real rehabilitation.

Of course higher education is not an individual affair, and the academic culture among SLU’s Bonne Terre students has naturally spread to the wider community. A partial source of the wider opportunity for learning is the Arts and Educations program, which invites academics and artists working in various disciplines to visit ERDCC to give lectures and host creative workshops.

Mary Gould, an associate professor of communications and co-director of the Arts program, taught a Small Group Communications class that’s been particularly influential on campus. Her students created a community service organization called the Inside Out Alliance. The group created G.E.D. tutoring sessions, and inmates are working on a proposal to bring at-risk youth into the facility to hear about how education has changed their lives. According to student and inmate Eric Webb SLU’s presence has changed the atmosphere at Bonne Terre for the better.

“Although there are those who still maintain a belief that felons are incorrigible and do not deserve such an opportunity, the pessimistic tide is slowly shifting,” Webb wrote.

The Prison Program hopes to keep growing, and organizers are working to develop a Baccalaureate degree offer. The Missouri Department of Corrections has also joined with a collection of professionals and organizations in the St. Louis community are coming together under the lead of Professor Emeritus Karen Barney to develop more effective re-entry programming. Having worked as an occupational therapist for all of her life, Barney hopes to bring a measured and personalized approach the reentry curriculum for incarcerated persons.

The proposed program focuses on having attentive interaction with inmates to get an accurate sense of what the person needs to succeed and then helping them develop necessary skills for success outside. It would focus on basic life skills, such as time management, finding and holding employment and maintaining a balanced life. Barney hopes the re-entry curriculum can eventually become a national model with the help of ongoing evaluation and research.

“I know we will only be successful if we start small and build it in a way that works,” Barney said.

And just as the Prison Program started small, thanks to a community of dedicated people it seems to be making a positive impact.

“The program and the people running it have not only changed the lives of the men in the program, but also the lives of those around us,” Scott wrote. “It has done more than just give us the tools to be successful. The program has taught us to teach others, to go out and make a difference in an environment that is less than conducive to social change.”

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