Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Education opportunities grow for some behind bars
Missouri's largest state prison offers educational opportunities for those incarcerated.
Convicted men, wearing prison issued gray uniforms, sit in classrooms with bars on the windows at Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Correctional Center (ERDCC, or Eastern) and earning college credit.
St. Louis University professor Stephen Casmier is one of the professors who goes through security regularly bringing the day's lesson plan.
Crasmier said to the The St. Louis Today (STLToday), "I was a bit concerned." He wasn't concerned about his safety, but about how the program would work out.
The prison doesn't have many computers, so when guys have to do work; writing a paper, for instance, they write several drafts by hand, then by typewriter.
"Too many programs, for the last two or three decades, get brought in and then somebody finds something they don't like about them and they smash it," said Jason Lewis, deputy warden of Eastern told STLToday. "We are moving slowly to get the momentum so we can spread it everywhere, all over the eastern region."
Missiour has 30,000 with the state's prison system, and around 20 of them usually makes up Dr. Crasmier's class.
Within Missouri's Department of Corrections, this revolutionary program is part of the Saint Louis University (SLU) Prison Program. The program was created to give educators and prison reformers an opportunity to reach those inside the prisons who are looking for a new beginning.
In 2008, certificates in Theology Studies from SLUwere offered. Then, it expanded to an associate of arts (a two-year degree). Generally, it takes the inmates four years to complete. In the beginning, the application window closed after five days because more than 300 inmates applied for 15 slots. Those without life sentences, who had previously tutored or held leadership positions in prison were selected. Program leaders said there haven't been any reports of disciplinary problems in or outside of class by those who participate.
The program costs nothing (SLU supports it with a $150,000 grant from the Hearst Foundation and other donations).
"When I was locked up, I kept telling myself that education was the the primary equalizer," said Ward Cummings, a returning citizen who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. In the '90s Cummings did time in a federal prison and when he was released he completed his parole, but upon completing it he was arrested six months later and did fourteen months in a Maryland prison.
"That last time I got arrested and went to prison, I bunked with a Muslim dude and he got me interested in education," Cummings said. ""The guy was a former teacher, and he convinced me to get an education. I already had my high school diploma."
Cummings, who is originally from East St. Louis, works and manages two cleaning services in Montgomery County. Although he had never done time at Eastern, he knew of others who have been incarcerated there..
"When I heard what was going on at Eastern, I was surprised," he mentioned.
The program, thusfar, has turned out to be a win-win for everybody. George Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, said that about 1,500 offenders in Missouri get GEDs each year, and there are several rehabilitative and vocational programs.
"We are not going to pay tax dollars to do it," Lombardi told STLToday.. "If someone wants to come in and provide a program, we'll be interested to listen to it."
Strangely, Lombardi doesn't want to use tax dollars to educate the incarcerated men, but don't mind the $20,863 a year price tag to house one inmate in a Missouri prison.
He further reached out to the SLU and requested that prison staff have this wonderful opportunity too, which the private college approved. And although the classes are separate, prisoners and prison staff seem to have similar goals.
Casmier had commented that often the inmates at Eastern seem more dedicated than students at SLU's main campus.
"People who are locked up shouldn't get a free education," said April, a D.C. resident who lives in Georgetown. "If they want an education, they should pay for it like everyone else does, or get a scholarship - they should earn it."
STLToday reports that Lewis, the deputy warden, believes judges have already given them their punishment.
"They are here to learn to do their time and to learn how to get back into the community and make those transitions once their time has gone by," he said. "As taxpayers, whether we like it or not, 97 percent of them are coming back (into society). How do you want them back?"
More than 350 college prison programs used to operate across the country, but only a few survived after Pell grants were cut for convicts in the 1990s, according to a report by Bard College in New York, which runs a prison education program.
Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Correctional Center is locaed in Bonne Terre, Missouri.
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