By Christopher Lushis
NOTRE DAME — One of the key themes throughout Pope Francis’ pontificate has been a consistent call to reach to the margins of society and demonstrate merciful love to those who are often forgotten by the world.
In a homily given last month, Pope Francis reiterated the need for all Catholics to respond to the Gospel in this way, exclaiming, “Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: He reinstates the marginalized. The way of the Church is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart; to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are essentially on the ‘outskirts’ of life.”
This is precisely the mission taken up by faculty and staff from the University of Notre Dame, Holy Cross College and the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), in conjunction with the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC), to educate and provide hope for prisoners at the Westville Correctional Facility.
The program, known as the Westville Education Initiative (WEI), offers male inmates the opportunity to enroll in college level courses to work towards earning an associate’s degree in liberal studies from Holy Cross. These inmates, who have demonstrated both an aptitude and desire to pursue studies in higher education, undertake the same level of responsibility that Notre Dame and Holy Cross professors expect from students at their respective institutions.
Jay Caponigro, director of Community Engagement at Notre Dame and facilitator for the Faculty Steering Committee with WEI, said, “We need to make sure we are offering rigorous academic courses that are at the standard of Notre Dame and Holy Cross, so if students want to apply to another institution when they leave the program to complete their bachelor’s degree, that they are prepared and have gotten the best academic training they could.”
WEI became a reality when representatives from Bard College in New York, an institution that has achieved tremendous success in prison education, contacted Notre Dame to inquire about the potential interest of expanding to Indiana. Their program, which just honored its 12th class of graduates, recently welcomed Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York as commencement speaker. There he told the men, “I salute you this graduation morning because you have learned not only the lessons of books, library, classroom and professors, but the most sublime lesson of them all: that the essence of life, the core of living, is found within the human person, not without.”
He further emphasized the importance of lifelong learning beginning at an early age, saying, “A solid education is perhaps the most valuable gift we can (and must) provide our young people. Better schools mean less poverty, violence, crime … and prisons!”
Notre Dame and Holy Cross were immediately supportive of the Westville endeavor and, with support from BPI, were able to move forward and create the infrastructure required for a sustainable initiative. The IDOC has also been an essential partner of the program, though since budget cuts in 2011 has been unable to financially support publically funded college degree-granting programs.
Holy Cross President Brother John Paige indicated that the schools were quick to jump on board because the program so aptly fits the mission of the Congregation of Holy Cross. “As our constitutions indicate, we have a preferential option for the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. I see the Westville program as a systematic way that specifically fulfills our mission of education by serving one of the most marginalized groups in our society, namely prisoners, whom the culture often says we should lock up and then throw away the key. This initiative dove tails beautifully with Catholic social teaching and makes for a great partnership with BPI in their pursuit of social justice and also with the state, which has been willing to accommodate our efforts.”
The benefits of this program for both those earning their degree and for society at large have been transformative. Caponigro said, “Of those who have earned degrees through BPI, the recidivism rate, the amount of people who go back into jail, is just 3 percent. That is what we are aiming to do; we want people to understand that they have alternatives and futures if they participate in this program.”
Holy Cross Brother Jesus Alonso, director for educational outreach, further spoke about the program’s life-changing effects. He remarked, “None of the men who have taken part in the Westville program have returned to prison and conduct issues for these men are also significantly decreased. The inmates are happy to have this opportunity to grow in knowledge and those who operate the prisons are pleased to witness this improvement in behavior. It is for these and many other reasons that the leaders of this program are committed to its long term growth.”
Alesha Seroczynski, Ph.D., WEI director of College Operations provided specifics on how she envisions this growth to occur. “We currently have 32 men participating in the program, with two earning their associate’s (degree) this spring. Over the next five years we are hoping to expand our enrollment to fill our dorm of 102 beds. Long term, we are hoping to include as many as 200 men in our program, but even reaching 100 students would make this one of the top college prison programs in the nation.”
This program has provided many men with a new start and the ability to make positive improvements to their life. To summarize the fundamental importance of WEI, Caponigro emphasized, “The mission of Holy Cross and Notre Dame is to educate the heart and mind. In Westville, we want to bring that same spirit to the table. We do this by showing that we are truly about helping these men realize their fullest potential as children of God.”
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