College in Prison Program educates inmates

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Saint Louis University’s associate professor of theological studies, Kenneth L. Parker,  said he felt compelled to stand up and make a change after watching a particularly touching and thought-provoking news segment.

After watching a 2007 episode of “60 Minutes” that highlighted a prison initiative at Bard College in upstate New York, Parker said he was left feeling that it was up to him to initiate the same type of program at SLU.  In 2008, Parker founded the Saint Louis University College-in-Prison Program, now called the Prison Initiative.  The program offers certificates and degrees for the inmates of the all-male Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Corrections Center (ERDCC) located in Bonne Terre, Mo.

Parker said he was blown away at the sight of inmates arguing over philosopher Immanuel Kant’s ideas, and that he found it stunning that a prison could so easily be the setting of such intellectual progress. The type of program he envisioned was similar to what he had watched on television- a program where prison inmates earn certificates and degrees by taking classes taught by university professors.

In fact, as he considered SLU’s Jesuit mission, Parker said he was surprised that the University was not already making strides to help such a needy population. Parker went directly to the Theology Department Chairman J.A. Wayne Hellman to see what could be done.  Hellman agreed that this type of program was something that SLU should be doing and that there would be a way to accomplish it.

Parker began by observing a mediation class in the prison.

“I was inspired by the intensity and the thirst for knowledge that I witnessed,” Parker said.

Parker felt even more motivated to see his vision through after the visit.

The Incarnate Word Foundation, a St. Louis charitable organization committed to combating poverty and inequality, was impressed with the idea.

After less than an hour of meeting with Parker, the Incarnate Word Foundation offered him a grant for the program. Parker said that Director of Corporation and Foundation Relations at SLU Heather R. Rich was instrumental in the grant process, spending six months refining the grant proposal.

In December of 2007, Parker heard that his program had been approved and was scheduled to start in January.

“I didn’t think it would happen so fast,” Parker said.

In 2010, the program received a total of six grants, including $10,000 from the Lutheran Foundation of St. Louis and $150,000 from the Hearst Foundation.

What started as a program in which inmates earned a certificate in theology has grown to include an Associate of Arts degree for which both prisoners and prison staff can earn. After spending some time at ERDCC, the faculty felt that the prison staff was also under-served and could benefit from the program.

Assistant professor of communication at SLU and the Director of the Arts and Education component of the program Mary R. Gould said that the program for the prison staff has been a “great experience” and that they are enthusiastic about the opportunity.

There is one class per term and five terms per year, with two faculty members per term. Each term has a different emphasis, English and communication being the current term’s focus.

“Humanities are central to the mission of the program,” Gould said.

Gould said that education in the humanities gives students the tools to think critically and reflect on their purpose in the world.  She emphasized the “intellectual resources not tied to a grade,” and that these are the same resources that “cater to the whole person”.

Gould said she hopes that the understanding of the prison system evolves as a culture.

“In the United States there are 2.3 million people behind bars and about 1 million people working in the industry and it has become an industry,” Gould said.

The U.S. has the largest prison population of any country. Both Parker and Gould emphasize that the U.S. is home to only 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. One in every 100 American adults is behind bars and one of 31 American adults is either in jail, on probation or on parole.

Parker once spoke with George Lombardi, who began a career in the Department of Corrections in the 1970s.  Parker noted that when Lombardi started, there were was a prison population of 3,000 and a probation and parole population of 7,000 in Missouri. Today there is a prison population of 31,000 and a combined probation and parole population of 75,000.

“We don’t recognize that we are in the midst of a silent crisis,” Parker said.

Gould said that 97 percent of Missouri prisoners will be released.

“These people will be your neighbors.  Education is proven to reduce people going back into prison,” Gould said.