November 15, 2016 // Local

YOM: Forgive Offenses

Inmates work their way to forgiveness, through education 

By Marlene Travis

Students of the Westfield Education Initiative program work on a science lab. Their educational efforts while incarcerated will yield associate’s degrees, helping them to leave old lifestyles behind and offering new employment options once they are released.

“Free living,” wrote Chris, as the motivation behind earning an associates degree while incarcerated.

Chris, along with 53 other inmates, is studying to earn that degree from Holy Cross College. This year, 11 students will graduate with Associates of Arts degree through the Westfield Education Initiative program, a collaborative venture between Holy Cross College, the University of Notre Dame and the Bard College Prison Initiative in upstate New York.

WEI first offered classes at Westville Correctional Facility in the spring of 2013. With 12 associate degrees earned so far, in five short years the program has allowed the incarcerated men to earn a degree that will empower them to re-enter society as productive members. David said the education has, “taught me to think of others more.” That’s the WEI goal, to inspire incarnated men to become their best selves through education.

Alesha Seroczynski, Ph.D, is WEI director of College Operations. She commented on the challenges those students face while trying to earn a degree. “Prison environment is very chaotic and regimented. It’s noisy, and there is very little privacy.”

Yet, WEI students are dedicated. “Some of them get up in the middle of night to write their papers,” Seroczynski said.

This time to think and reflect is crucial to these students, who want to better their lives. “I think that this is a great program that allows you to ‘think;’ to think differently about not only your life, but the life of others,” said Joshua, another program participant. “What you want in life doesn’t have to be out of your reach. With this education, you’re only limited by the length of your grasp.”

Westfield Education Initiative is a collaborative venture between Holy Cross College, the University of Notre Dame and the Bard College Prison Initiative, through which the students involved will earn associate’s degrees. Pictured are the students and professors of this year’s WEI program.

The Westfield students are an inspiration in the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and Seroczynski’s outlook is a good reminder of Pope Francis’ message about forgiving offenses. “The end of the Jubilee year should not end the acts of mercy: They should inspire us to be merciful all the time,” she said. “Pope Francis inspires the life of the heart, which we try to do at Westfield Prison. Pope Francis inspires us to inspire them.”

The professors involved with the program are breaking down the barriers that society has created about the marginalized, and they seek to transform the attitude that inmates are nothing but deserving of their jail time. Dr. Michael Griffin, theology professor at Holy Cross, weighed in about the connection between WEI and mercy: “WEI is about academics first, and not simply a ministry to the less fortunate. The students are collegians, some of them among the brightest at any college. But yes, there is an element of mercy in extending the opportunity of college. Mercy is about seeking wholeness, and academic life is not whole if it excludes those who are incarcerated. So in that sense, this is a work of mercy.”

Rejecting society’s view that he ought to be removed from society and pay a price for his crime, Chris said he has always had a passion to help those in need. “My education with WEI allowed me to develop direction and inspired me to dive deeper into my thoughts and ideas. A professor once told me that expressing my thoughts and ideas should take me out of prison. It is extremely difficult for people to understand something they have never experienced.”

Through the WEI program, Holy Cross College is living out mercy through educating the mind and the heart of both traditional students and nontraditional students, especially those society often neglects. Jon Hicks, a former graduate of WEI, exemplifies how the forgiveness of offenses makes a difference in the lives of the imprisoned.

“I felt the need to always do whatever I could during my six years to not only make myself a better person, but to show my family, friends and society that I was not a reprehensible deviant but a capable, caring human being. The degree (gave) me an earned time credit of one year, which allowed me to return back to society with new skills and new confidence — given to me by WEI/HCC/ND.”

Rather than further marginalizing the imprisoned, the WEI program engages them and empowers them to become productive and wanted members of society. There may be no more holistic or practical way this than through education. As Seroczynski said, “We can give them jobs. We can give them employment. But we cannot assume they should be scripted to the lowest places in society … Let us help them grow their careers.”

Click here for the entire YEAR of MERCY listing of pages.



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