Education Behind Bars

A small Catholic college in the Midwest is trying to reduce recidivism by bringing college programs to prisoners.

Like other college students, James Shehan and Tuan Huynh have dreams of making a difference. Shehan hopes to mentor troubled youth and keep them off the streets. Huynh wants to become a biblical counselor.

Unlike other college students, Shehan and Huynh are convicted murderers.

Both are serving life sentences at Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas. But thanks to Donnelly College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Kansas City, Kan., Shehan, Huynh and other inmates are getting a shot at redemption through education.

“There are some of us trying to make changes in our lives,” says Shehan, serving his 24th year. “We know we’ve done wrong. We’re trying to rectify the situation.

“For all my life I’d just been a quitter, only did things halfway. This was my chance to knuckle down and complete something for once in my life.”

Donnelly began the associate degree program in Lansing in 2001. And now it has help. In February, Donnelly announced that the U.S. Department of Justice provided it a $223,000 grant to help with its education of 50-plus inmates each year. The grant, spearheaded by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., is tied to a congressional effort to cut recidivism rates in half within five years.

“Donnelly’s Lansing program can serve as a model for other prisons,” Brownback said in a release. “People in prison need to do time for their crime, but they are not without redemption.”

Mission of Service

Postsecondary correctional education once was commonplace. That changed radically in 1994, notes a January report by the Correctional Association of New York, when President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Among other things, it prohibited awarding Pell Grants to federal or state inmates. Nearly all of the nation’s 350 postsecondary correctional education programs closed — despite the various benefits of its programs. Donnelly points to federal analyses indicating that higher education in prisons yields at least $2 in public savings for every dollar spent. Recidivism also is reduced.

Yet, Donnelly estimates, today it is one of less than a dozen U.S. colleges with a prison presence.

Ken Gibson, Donnelly president emeritus, founder and coordinator of the Lansing program, said funding was the greatest obstacle to initiating the program. Costs are kept minimal in part due to the partnership with and in-kind contributions provided by the Lansing facility. Initially, other expenses were covered in thirds, split among inmates who work (or their families), participating employers and Donnelly. But employers later discontinued reimbursements, leaving Donnelly to cover two-thirds of the expenses.

“One miracle was getting the prison accredited as a college campus,” said Gibson. “The second miracle was keeping the doors open. When employers backed out, we thought we were finished. But we were able to talk to some more people and get some more help.”

The grant will support program operations for the next three years. Gibson said that will allow the college to raise funds for a sustaining endowment.

Donnelly offers Lansing inmates one of three associate degrees with an emphasis on business courses. There’s a range of other classes, too.

Shehan, a 2005 Donnelly alumnus, has taken music appreciation, Greek and Roman mythology and American history. Huynh, a 31-year-old inmate serving a life sentence for murder committed when he was 18, has taken 12 classes, including income tax and physical science this past semester. He is eligible for parole in May 2011.

About 20 faculty members have taught at the prison. Most classes are held in medium security and can be broadcast to prisoners in the maximum and minimum facilities.

“The inmates know that education is a way for them to get out of prison. It’s always a help with the parole board,” said Gibson. “If they get the degree, it gives them the opportunity once they get out to get a decent job to stay out of prison.”

Shehan is working toward a bachelor’s degree in child or adolescent psychology, taking distance classes through Louisiana State University — a challenge, given the prison’s lack of a modern library and Internet connectivity. If he gets out, he hopes to turn others from their errant ways.

Does the program work? Donnelly points out that of the more than 325 inmates who have taken classes, 14 have earned associate degrees. Of the 155 former students who have been released from prison, just three have been reconvicted of another crime and returned to prison. According to a 2002 Bureau of Justice Statistics report that Donnelly cites, 25% of inmates nationally are resentenced to prison for a new crime within three years of release.

One criminal justice researcher, though, says reducing recidivism takes more than just education.

T. Hank Robinson is a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Juvenile Justice Institute, which conducted the “Recidivism Reduction Treatment Center Study” that identified five different factors affecting recidivism: education/employment, substance abuse, mental health, housing and support of social networks.

“The more stable a person is the less likely it is that they’re going to commit crimes or get in trouble,” said Robinson.

Huynh agrees. “A guy can earn a master’s, a bachelor’s, a low-level associate’s, but if he doesn’t apply what he learned,” he said, “education is irrelevant. If he prides himself with what he has learned, then it’s effective.”

Then why is Donnelly’s program so successful?

“It really may not be their increased ability to read or write or to do plumbing,” said Robinson. “It may be all the life skills and all the life organizational techniques and tools that people pick up when they go through the program.”

Gibson indicates that Donnelly’s program does go beyond academics. As a faith-based college, he notes, Donnelly talks “to them about the importance of faith. It’s the same kind of position they take in a 12-step program. You have to have a higher being that helps you out, and you can’t do it by yourself.”

Anthony Flott writes from

Papillion, Nebraska.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.