College's Prison Program a 'Win-Win for Everyone': Inside Lansing's Walls, Inmates Work toward Associate Degree

By Ryan, Zoe | National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

College's Prison Program a 'Win-Win for Everyone': Inside Lansing's Walls, Inmates Work toward Associate Degree


Ryan, Zoe, National Catholic Reporter


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. …

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