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College's prison program a 'win-win for everyone': inside Lansing's walls, inmates work toward associate degree.

Years after receiving his philosophy doctorate, Ken Gibson, then president at Donnelly College in the early 2000s, walked into the Lansing Correctional Facility to teach a class to inmates working toward an associate degree.

The first time he walked in, "there were about 20 inmates sitting out there in the classroom looking at me," he recalled. "I said, 'My name's Dr. Ken Gibson, and I'm here to teach you ethics.'

"And one of the prisoners said, 'You're going to teach us ethics? You're a little late aren't you?' I said, 'Well, no, you're going to get out someday'"

Donnelly College--a Benedictine-founded, archdiocesan-sponsored four-year college in Kansas City, Kan.--partners with the prison in Lansing, Kan., to provide the Lansing Correctional Facility Program, which provides accredited college courses taught inside the prison walls by Donnelly faculty or adjunct professors. Inmates can work toward an associate of arts degree.

"Education is the key to success," deputy warden Kyle Deere said, calling the program a "win-win for everyone." Deere oversees various prison programs, one being the education program, for which he serves on the advisory board. Most men that go through Lansing may not even have their GED certificate, he said.

Many studies show that the recidivism rate is very low for former inmates who received a degree in prison, Gibson said. Even the recidivism rate among those who have not graduated but just taken courses is extremely low, he said.

Ninety-five percent of all prisoners are eventually released, Gibson said, and "if they get out of prison and they've been rehabilitated and they don't go back into a life of crime ... that in essence makes society a safer place."

Some people have misunderstandings about prison and prisoners, said Gibson, who helped found the program in 2001. "Obviously, there are certain people in prison who deserve to be in prison and who probably are better off in prison than being out in society," he said. "But there are a number of people i in prison that ... just made a mistake, and if they can turn their lives around and can come back into society and be good citizens, they not only help themselves but they make society a safer place to be."

David Pratt, 39, graduated from the education program at the end of 2011. When he arrived at Lansing in 2003 and heard about the program, he immediately enrolled, even though the last time he sat in a classroom was in 1990.

"It's an opportunity for [something] tangible--something you can show people: This is what I've done, this is what I've accomplished," he said, describing education as "a step on my way up." He credits his teachers in the program for being great motivators.

College was always on Kevin Phillips Jr.'s mind. The 23-year-old is the first person in his immediate family to take college classes.

The program is beneficial, he said, because so many people who are incarcerated took privileges for granted before they were imprisoned. He knows the decisions he made in life landed him at Lansing, he said. This program builds character and discipline, he said, and he views it as "an honor and a great privilege." He's only 20 credits shy of getting his degree and hopes to enter into the business or engineering field.

"To me, [the program] is important because it gives me an opportunity to continue my learning" in spite of his decisions that curtailed his education, he said.

As for future plans, both men want to obtain a bachelor's degree.

In 2000, Gibson met with Fr. Richard Mucowski, then president of St. Mary College (a school sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kan., and now called the University of St. Mary), and David McKune, the warden of Lansing, to discuss how to offer a prison education program. St. Mary had taught college courses in the prison when prisoners were still able to receive Pell Grants.

In 1994, Congress voted to eliminate Pell Grants to prisoners in federal or state prisons, and as a result, many colleges, including St. Mary, could not afford to host the programs anymore. St. Mary asked if Donnelly could offer the classes, and in 2001, Donnelly began the program.

A few colleges, such as Bard College in New York, still provide education programs like these, said the current lead instructor of Donnelly's program, Steve Jansen.

Jansen said the program has a "relatively small footprint" in an institution that holds 2,400 inmates. About 35 to 50 inmates enroll each semester. Some do not always finish the program--say, if they are moved to another location or their work schedule changes, Gibson said.

To graduate with an associate degree, students need 64 credit hours. To date, the program has had about 18-20 graduates, Jansen said. Many of them have brought credits from previous experience at colleges, he said. A few after their release from prison enroll at Donnelly to finish their degree.

The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools has accredited the Lansing site as a campus of Donnelly College.

The prison program fits the mission of Donnelly, said the college's current president, Steven LaNasa, because Donnelly has a "special focus on those that would otherwise go unserved." Nearly a third of Donnelly's students come from households with less than $13,000 annual income, and more than 90 percent qualify for financial aid, according to the college's website.

Donnelly's service at Lansing is a "critical component of the social justice orientation of the church," LaNasa said.

Finding funding plagues the program. Tuition once was $150 for a course; now it is $214. In the early years, the private industries that employed inmates at Lansing paid one-third of the tuition cost, while the inmate student paid one-third and Donnelly raised money to pay one-third. About five years after the program started, the industries said they could no longer afford to pay, Gibson said, so now Donnelly raises two-thirds of the tuition through private donations.

When the program started, Gibson told his cofounders that "we'll do whatever we can at Donnelly to make this program work, but I won't take money from poor kids in Wyandotte County who are going to Donnelly College and use it to provide the program in a prison. We'll have to be able to raise the money that we need."

Churches and foundations helped and still keep the program alive through donations, and the Dunn family of J.E. Dunn Construction Co. has been very helpful, Gibson and Jansen said. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded the program a $223,000 grant, which ended in 2011.

Financially, the program is facing difficult times, but so are many small private higher education institutions, Gibson said.

He, Deere and LaNasa give a lot of credit to Jansen for the continuation of the program. Jansen keeps an office at the prison two days a week to be available to students and inmates interested in the program.

"He does an excellent job of working with the prisoners. ... He's very committed to that work and he does a lot to keep it going," Gibson said.

Jansen, now on the faculty at Donnelly, was an adjunct professor when the full-time lead instructor of the prison education program asked him if he would teach a class at Lansing.

He had "an incredible experience" teaching the class. He became the new lead instructor when the position changed from full-time to part-time, the same time he finished teaching his first class at Lansing in 2005.

"I always say that the students that I work with at Lansing are not better students in terms of skills, but they do tend to be better students in terms of motivation," Jansen said. "They want to prove to themselves and to their families that they are important, valuable, worthwhile people, and that they have potential. And when I was teaching them ... they knew the stuff. They were asking questions. They were interested. And frankly, as a teacher who primarily was teaching bored and frustrated 18- and 19-year-olds, it was an incredible experience to have people who were enthusiastic and eager and willing to learn."

Jansen credits Gibson's influence on the endurance of the program: "He's always had a strong attachment to this offering."

When he was president, Gibson received many complaints from people asking why inmates should receive an education when there are students in the world who struggle to afford it.

Drawing from Catholic tradition and mission, he would remind them of the church's preferential option for the poor and the corporal work of mercy to visit the prisoner. And barriers to higher education are vanishing due to the amount of financial aid available and the prevalence of community colleges, Gibson said.

There are only so many private industry jobs at Lansing Correctional Facility, so the majority of inmates cannot afford tuition. Donnelly works with the family of an inmate if the family wants to financially support the inmate's education.

Faculty members from Donnelly and adjunct professors usually teach the courses. Volunteers with advanced degrees, such as religious sisters from the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, help teach classes. One sister teaches a noncredit class that prepares students to take an intermediate algebra prerequisite to Donnelly's college algebra course, Jansen said.

Jansen, who has a doctorate in 20th-century U.S. history, is teaching a modern world history class via a closed-circuit TV system from a classroom on Donnelly's main campus to a classroom within the prison--a new initiative.

Also, a video of Jansen's lectures will be on the internal cable television system at Lansing, and one night a week it will be looped over and over, possibly recruiting more students to take college classes.

"Inmates are our best reference because their word is credible with other inmates," Jansen said. Although they advertise through the internal cable TV system within the prison, recruitment is largely dependent on word of mouth.

In today's world, Jansen said, a GED certificate is "but the beginning. It cannot be the end."

"If you want to have people rehabilitated, it is important for them to see an * alternative to what they used to do," he added. "We think that offering them the opportunity to accomplish something positive while being incarcerated is part of the solution."

[Zoe Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her email address is]
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Title Annotation:COLLEGE & UNIVERSITIES; Lansing Correctional Facility
Author:Ryan, Zoe
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 2, 2012
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