By Tim Linn
How Vermonn Roberts came to Chillicothe Correctional Center is a matter of public record; the details and proceedings can be easily found in court records and newspaper articles. It’s something she lives with each day as an inmate. And it comes with feelings of deep regret, loneliness and hopelessness that haunted her from the moment she arrived.
“For a long time, being in here, I didn’t love myself, I didn’t believe in myself,” she said. “I didn’t know what love was, so I just went through life self-sabotaging and being broken.”
In 2018, Roberts was offered a spot in the first cohort in a new program at the facility that has since become known as Companions in Chillicothe — an on-site educational offering to both incarcerated students and staff members taught by Rockhurst University faculty. It has not changed Roberts’ circumstances or her past, but it’s changed her life, she says, and she’s seen it change those around her, too.
“You can’t be a whole person unless somebody shows you love, unless somebody sees you, unless somebody pours into you,” she said. “So that’s my aim in life, to pour into people. Just like Rockhurst has poured into me.”
It’s exactly the kind of transformation that Fr. Thomas B. Curran, SJ, had hoped for when he helped establish the program at Rockhurst. And it’s what he’s been missioned to replicate across the Jesuits USA Central and Southern (UCS) Province, and potentially across the nation, as the coordinator for the Jesuit Prison Education Network (JPEN), established in spring 2022.
With five of the six institutions in the province currently offering or preparing to offer college courses, in-person or virtually, Fr. Curran said JPEN is a work of the Society of Jesus rooted in both St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and the Universal Apostolic Preference to walk with the marginalized. JPEN is a living, evolving example of the Jesuit commitment to the power of education to transform individuals and society.
Saint Louis University (SLU) was the first prison education program in the province, beginning its work 15 years ago at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri. Initially offering solely theology courses, the Prison Education Program has steadily expanded its reach and scope in the years since. In 2011, they began to offer Associate of Arts degrees. Afterward came the College Preparatory Program to help individuals at the facility prepare to take college courses. Then came the Prison Arts and Education Program, featuring monthly speakers and arts workshops available to the wider community at the facility. The program even has a chartered organization for incarcerated students called the Inside/Out Alliance.
Julie O’Heir, director of the program, said the goal from the beginning was simple.
“The mission of the Saint Louis University Prison Education Program is to create a college in prison,” she said.
Within that plainly stated premise, though, is a great deal of promise: to live up to the Jesuit ideal of educating the whole person, to inspire students to change the world for the better, and to support the university’s work to address historical wrongs and break cycles of poverty and imprisonment.
“People from communities where a lot of people go to college are not from communities where a lot of people go to prison, and vice versa,” O’Heir said.
From a curricular standpoint, she said there is no difference between what students on SLU’s St. Louis campus experience and what students inside ERDCC or the St. Louis County Jail – where the university now also offers courses – experience.
“We do not refer to this program as a ministry,” said O’Heir. “We provide a college education, same as the main campus, to people who have been historically excluded from higher education. We build a relationship with our students and their communities, and SLU benefits just as much from this relationship as the students.”
Since 2008, approximately 4,500 students have participated in SLU programs. This includes 104 courses taught by 85 different SLU faculty. Forty-four have graduated from the Associate of Arts program, more than 140 speaker series events and 45 workshops. But the especially eye-catching result: 0% recidivism among the participants.
Sharing the Model
In 2015, Fr. Curran, then president of Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, began exploring the possibility of an educational program offered through Rockhurst at Chillicothe. Why Chillicothe? It helped meet a very specific need in a landscape where educational opportunities are already few and far between.
“There are 21 correctional facilities in Missouri — 19 are for men, two are for women,” Fr. Curran said.
Early conversations involved the warden at the facility as well as Ken Parker, Ph.D., who helped launch SLU’s PEP courses. The first cohorts began in fall 2018. Faculty teach mostly in person, each semester cycling through courses including theology and religious studies, philosophy, biology, English and others.
The program’s director, Craig Watz, Ph.D., said Companions at Chillicothe most recently became part of the federal Second Chance Pell Experiment and began offering Associate of Arts degrees to participants. Every step of the way, Watz said, has been in collaboration with the facility’s administrators and the students.
“When we first started, our concept was to provide education,” he said. “Education itself is the end state — what you learn, what you carry with you, what you can impart to others.”
In 2022, Regis University in Denver instituted virtual Inside/Out Program courses in cooperation with the Colorado Department of Corrections, allowing students inside four of the state’s correctional centers to study via video alongside students on campus in Denver.
Bryan Hall, Ph.D., dean of the School for Professional Advancement and a philosophy professor at Regis, said 18 incarcerated students in each cohort study alongside as many as seven students at the Denver campus as part of the Inside/Out Program. Both faculty teaching the courses and students in them report the profound effect it has had on their outlook.
“I didn’t know who I was until I was 29 years old, and now I have direction, purpose, and I am confident that I can succeed in society, complete my education and be an inspiration for those who have struggled in the same ways as me,” said Tanner Valdez, a student from Buena Vista Correctional Facility who completed the Regis College Readiness Certificate in 2022. “At the risk of sounding cliché, I will say: Regis saved me, and it made me who I am today.”
Also in 2022, the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans led the establishment of Loyola at Rayburn featuring in-person instruction for incarcerated student and staff cohorts at B.B. Rayburn Correctional Center in Louisiana, seeing nearly 200 applicants for the initial 20 spots in the incarcerated student cohort.
Marcus Kondkar, Ph.D., professor of sociology who taught as part of Loyola’s program, said as an instructor he found himself assisting in the process of helping build up for students what so many factors have torn down.
“The prison experience reinforces messages of insignificance and worthlessness and severely undermines self-confidence,” he said. “Part of what I have found myself doing is persuading the students that they are smart, capable and belong in college, and their own successes are starting to convince them that that’s true.”
The latest institution to join the JPEN network is St. John’s College in Belize City, Belize, which in 2023 initiated a needs assessment as the first step in establishing a prison education program in the country’s sole male prison.
“Co-Laborers in Mercy”
Father Curran said discussions with UCS Provincial Thomas P. Greene, SJ, about joining these existing and future programs under one network began in 2022, as he was wrapping up his tenure as president of Rockhurst. Even as they laid the groundwork for a smaller scale, they set their expectations higher.
“The conversations toggled between whether it was better to focus on the whole network of Jesuit colleges and universities, which consists of 28 institutions in the AJCU (Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities) or focus upon the six institutions in the UCS Province,” he said. “We both concluded that it was best to start with the six schools of the UCS, while simultaneously positioning this network to involve and incorporate schools from the other three USA provinces.”
In an abstract inviting fellow AJCU schools to learn more about JPEN at the group’s 2023 assembly, Fr. Curran underscored how the mission of the organization’s goals are integral to the larger mission of Jesuit Catholic institutions.
“As companions in a mission of reconciliation and justice, we are invited to be co-laborers in mercy,” Fr. Curran wrote. “We are called to be in a right relationship with the Divine, our neighbors and our created world. Prison education is a means for pursuing this relationship.”
The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with close to 531 of every 100,000 citizens currently in a correctional facility, according to the World Prison Brief. Disproportionate numbers of those incarcerated are people of color and, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, on the lower end of the income scale.
In a 2021 study on recidivism by the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 46% of state prisoners released in 2012 were back in prison within five years. Education programs have been shown to reduce recidivism.
JPEN was created to address some of the root causes of incarceration.
“Programs like this operate at the frontiers of our culture, and we have no more powerful tool for fighting recidivism and restoring the dignity of the incarcerated than prison education,” said Hall of Regis’ Inside/Out Program. “The program also promotes diversity, equity and inclusion insofar as two-thirds are students of color and two-thirds are first-generation college students.”
There are also benefits to culture inside the institutions. Lisa Suter, a student who is incarcerated who has been part of Rockhurst’s Companions in Chillicothe since its inception, said being educated has given her something that she hadn’t had beforehand: purpose.
“It’s just a blessing for me – to get an education, to gain more knowledge – whether I ever get the chance to use it out there or just share it with people in here,” she said. “But to know that we affect other people with what we do, that was huge. And that feels like that gives my life a lot of purpose, even in here, and that’s hard to find.”
All the prison education programs featured in this story depend on donations. If you want to support this important work, consider reaching out to the university of your choosing, or contribute to the Jesuit Prison Education Network through this site.
Tim Linn is director of communications at Rockhurst University.