College in Prison program broadens horizons

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The Billiken base has broadened, and through the Monsanto Grow St. Louis contest, it can keep growing. The Saint Louis University Prison Program, which offers associate degrees to incarcerated offenders and employees of the Missouri Department of Corrections, is one of more than 140 local non-profit initiatives competing for donations of up to $15,000 from Monsanto as part of a contest to help keep St. Louis growing.

The Prison Program, offered at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Mo., is funded through private grants. The award from the Grow St. Louis contest could be used to compensate for tuition, faculty and administrative costs, such as travel and fees for guest speakers. The program’s first pilot included a certificate in theological studies. The program is now offering a pilot associate of arts degree, which seeks to earn $175,000 to be sufficiently funded. According to Kenneth Parker, director of the program and an associate professor of historical theology, the award from the Grow St. Louis contest could contribute to the goal.

“This is an opportunity for the SLU community, especially students, to demonstrate to their fellow students at Bonne Terre and the broader St. Louis community that SLU cares about incarcerated people and those who work in our prisons,” Parker said.

Parker said he encourages the community to vote at least once per day until Jan. 29 on the Monsanto Grow St. Louis website to help the Prison Program win the contest.

Mary Gould, a professor of communication who has volunteered to teach public speaking and small group communication in the program, said that winning the contest would demonstrate public support for the work the University is doing.

“The educational opportunities we provide, through the classes, workshops and speaker events we facilitate for the staff and incarcerated for the staff and incarcerated members of the ERDCC community, accomplish the same goals that we hope for all of our students of Saint Louis University,” Gould said. “To increase their knowledge base, help them become good citizens and community members, and live productive and healthy lives.”

The Student Government Association has called the student body to participate in the voting cycle, recognizing that students enrolled in the program are also part of the SLU community.

SGA is currently implementing initiatives to bridge the main campus with students at ERDCC, including circulation of The University News to the facility.

“We are called to represent all students,” SGA President Matt Ryan said. “As SLU becomes a global campus, we need to remember that part of our world is just an hour away.”

Ryan and other members of SGA visited the facility last fall, where he said they learned that the benefits of the program are a “two-way street” and that students in the program have a lot to offer students on the main campus.

“They teach me things I would have never been able to learn had I not gone there, like sincerity and appreciation and things we sometimes take for granted,” Ryan said. “They show what it means to be a Billiken in a different light.”

Parker said the SLU Prison Program coincides with the Jesuit mission of the University. Coining the program a “Matthew 25” project, Parker cites the scripture that calls others to serve those in need.

“This program speaks to our Catholic Jesuit mission, to be present to those who are at the margins of our society,” Parker said. “Sadly, we must educate the public that it is not an option to care.”

Parker said that 97 percent of the incarcerated population will be released to society.

“The great question is: How do you want them to return?” Parker said.

More than half of those inmates released are expected to reoffend within three years. Through higher education, Parker said the program hopes to reduce recidivism.

The SLU Prison Program is the only initiative offering college degrees in Missouri correctional facilities.

The ERDCC welcomes private programs to initiate such projects but refrains from using tax dollars to implement educational opportunities.

“There is a deep and profound need for this positive and important rehabilitative work,” Parker said.

To house one inmate in a Missouri prison, it costs the state $20,863 per year.Educating those incarcerated could help to ensure that those released do not return to prison, thus reducing not only tax dollars spent on correctional facilities, but also crime.

“We have a hidden crisis that is bankrupting our states and making our communities more dangerous,” Parker said. “Your generation will have to turn this crisis into an opportunity, to create hope where there is despair and advocate for a different future for yourselves and those who believe that they have been forgotten.