College Degree Program Hopes to Make Impact in Missouri Prison


A class of 19 inmates, a small sampling of the 30,000 offenders in the Missouri Department of Corrections system, is part of the St. Louis University Prison Program, an effort that educators and prison reformers are watching with hopeful, yet cautious, eyes, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “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 the Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Correctional Center in Bonne Terre. “We are moving slowly to get the momentum so we can spread it everywhere.”

In 2008, SLU started offering certificates in Theology Studies at the prison. In March, it expanded to an associate of arts, a two-year degree that will take the inmates four years to finish. “We have got to find other ways of dealing with problems in our society besides locking people up,” said Kenneth Parker, a SLU theologian who directs the program. “And that means finding more rehabilitative approaches. And that’s where I think private nonprofits like SLU have a role to play.” Doug Burris, chief U.S. probation officer for the Eastern District of Missouri, said he hopes the “Bonne Terre model” can expand with the help of a small college in Greenville, Il., home to St. Louis’ closest federal lockup. The program, free to inmates, is supported by SLU, a $150,000 grant from the Hearst Foundation and other donations. More than 350 college prison programs used to operate, but only a few survived after Pell grants were cut for convicts in the 1990s, says a report by Bard College.

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