Just over 2 million people in the United States are currently incarcerated. According to the Sentencing Project, the U.S. incarceration rate has increased by 500 percent in the last 40 years, making the United States the largest incarcerator in the world. It is not difficult to imagine the near impossibility of pursuing a college degree while incarcerated and the significant barriers to higher education that exist once released.
To help combat the hurdles to attaining an education during and after prison, Catholic colleges and universities have implemented programs such as Hudson Link @ St. Francis College (SFC). Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison is a nonprofit organization that seeks to restore and strengthen access to higher education for those in prison. As one of the organization’s college partners, St. Francis subsidizes tuition for students to pursue a degree from the college after their release from a correctional institution, according to SFC’s website. By working with a population at significant risk of recidivism, or returning to prison, Hudson Link @ SFC uses its resources to help returning citizens transition back into society, with the hopes of “decreasing recidivism while increasing employment opportunities and earnings potential” for the Hudson Link students.
According to Richard Relkin, director of media relations and adjunct professor at SFC, there are ten faculty members who “are actively involved with formally and informally supporting Hudson Link students.” After three years of being involved with Hudson Link, Relkin reports that SFC will have its first graduating class in spring 2017. Hudson Link @ SFC has made deep and lasting impressions on the students, faculty, and even administrators at the college. Two years ago, a student learned of Hudson Link and worked with administration to have the question regarding criminal history removed from SFC’s admissions application. Relkin shared that students and faculty in contact with the Hudson Link students “begin to understand the concept of rehabilitative justice, and the importance of giving people a second chance.” By enacting forgiveness and mercy, Hudson Link @ SFC embodies the college’s Franciscan mission.
Another example of prison education programs is found at Donnelly College, which runs the Lansing Correctional Program, bringing a liberal arts education to offenders in the Lansing Correctional Facility. Established in 2001, the program has taught 420 students and has awarded 20 associate degrees. Nationally, about 68 percent of returning citizens are rearrested within three years. Conversely, Donnelly’s program boasts a 2 percent recidivism rate for its graduates, an indication that a college education contributes to lower rates of returning to prison.
Steve Jansen, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Donnelly College and director of the program, explained that since 2001 Donnelly has been providing classes at Lansing despite the facility being a significant distance from campus. Jansen expressed that faculty are drawn to Lansing because “the students are not better skilled but in general they’re better motivated because they want to prove to themselves and to their families that they’re not what society says they are.”
At the program’s roots is the human dignity of the students, rather than their criminal history. With its deep respect for the humanity of its students, the Lansing Correctional Program realizes Donnelly’s mission “to provide education and community services with personal concern for the needs and abilities of each student, especially those who might not otherwise be served.”
Another example of a program that brings education to prisons is found at Holy Cross College (HCC). Started in 2013, the Westville Education Initiative (WEI) is a collaboration between faculty at HCC and the University of Notre Dame that allows incarcerated students to earn an associate’s degree at HCC and transition to a HCC bachelor’s degree program. Alesha Seroczynski, Ph.D., director of college operations for WEI, expressed that they seek “great minds with the potential to be outstanding students.” Stressing that the program is very rigorous and not designed to simply offer time-cuts to offenders, Seroczynski says the WEI students “genuinely want to be better people and they believe a college education is one of the ways for that to happen.” WEI has awarded twelve associate’s degrees to incarcerated students, with a first cohort of students beginning in the bachelor’s degree program this fall.
Aligning with the missions of Holy Cross College and the University of Notre Dame, WEI educates “the heart and mind,” as Seroczynski puts it. The Initiative is also hoping to expand in the future. HCC was recently awarded one of 67 Second Chance Pell Grants, a pilot initiative of the Obama administration to offer grants to incarcerated students pursing higher education. Modeled after the Bard Prison Initiative and already participating in the Bard College–based Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, WEI hopes to create a network of its own with other small liberal arts schools in Indiana.
A final example of prison education can be found at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Distinct from the aforementioned programs, La Salle’s Inside Out Prison Exchange Program has been offering La Salle students the opportunity to join an equal number of incarcerated students in taking a course inside local prisons since 2014. The courses have centered on questioning mass incarceration and how best to move forward from the phenomenon.
Caitlin Taylor, Ph.D., is one of the first professors to teach a course for the Inside Out program. A professor of criminal justice, Taylor explains that “Inside Out courses tend to be very different from traditional college courses in that the faculty member is there to facilitate the learning experience as opposed to provide direct instructions.” By learning from one another, Taylor continues, “most students are transformed by the collaborative learning experience.” The Inside Out program lives out the university’s Catholic identity and mission, as Taylor expresses it, “to meet students where they are at and to educate traditionally underserved populations.”
Educating incarcerated individuals and returning citizens is one way Catholic higher education has taken steps toward reducing recidivism, creating safer communities, and building bridges between unlikely friends. Examples such as Hudson Link @ Saint Francis College, the Westville Education Initiative at Holy Cross College and the University of Notre Dame, the Lansing Correctional Program at Donnelly College, and the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program of La Salle University demonstrate the unique ability for Catholic colleges and universities to educate the forgotten and to rehabilitate the forsaken. By supporting and implementing such programs, these four institutions embody their Catholic mission and help create opportunities to respect the human dignity of those who are incarcerated.
Justine Worden is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University. She was the Peace and Justice Intern at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities during the 2015-16 academic year.