Ozovek: Prison programs prove beneficial

Jill Martin

Much of the university community doesn’t even know the program exists, but it’s a significant part of Villanova’s community outreach.

For over 30 years, Villanova professors have been making the 45-minute trek to Graterford maximum security prison in Collegeville to instruct and educate felons convicted of murder, rape and robbery, among other crimes. Begun in 1972, Villanova’s Graterford program enables inmates at the prison to earn a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies. For free.

Sound controversial?

Some are angered that convicted felons can get a free education at Villanova, clearly one of the more expensive institutions for higher learning in the country, while many eligible high school graduates cannot afford it.

Others are incensed parents, angered that some of the tuition dollars they spend on sending their children to Villanova are ultimately spent on the Graterford program.

Administrators worry that alumni will be less inclined to make generous donations to the University when it touts such a program. Still others take the moral stance, believing that the inmates gave up their right to an education when they decided to commit felonies.

While these arguments are seemingly valid, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the program is a sound one and should remain active and if anything, should receive more funding to enable expansion. Traditionally speaking, crime policy in the United States is often based on emotions rather than reason, with people taking the “Lock ’em up” attitude to get “evil criminals” off the streets. However, this attitude is problematic for a variety of reasons.

First of all, keeping the program alive is what our school is all about. Dean of Arts and Sciences Rev. Kail C. Ellis, O.S.A, encapsulated this notion when he said, “We have to ask what we as a Catholic university are able to bring to our mission.

Why should a Catholic university be involved in a criminal justice program? There are moral and ethical issues involved in this, issues of justice that go right to the heart of the University’s mission.”

If you don’t agree with the Catholic slant on things, take another look. Recidivism rates, or the likelihood a felon will commit another crime upon his release from jail, decline significantly when the inmate received an education while in prison.

According to a study done by law student JaPaul Kemp and Texas Southern University Earl Carl Institute for Legal and Social Policy, inmates released from prison without additional education have a 60 percent recidivism rate. Among inmates who received their high school diplomas while in prison, Kemp’s study shows, the recidivism rate drops to 24 percent. The recidivism rate drops to five percent among inmates who have completed four years of college while incarcerated.

For prisoners lucky enough to be released or paroled, prison education programs have helped them obtain jobs on the outside and helped them assimilate themselves back into society, preventing future deviant acts. But for those prisoners who will never see the outside of Graterford, the program increases self-esteem and fosters the development of a strong moral character, two things crucial to the smooth functioning of prison life.

Each semester, Villanova and other Philadelphia area college and universities run trips to the prison for criminology classes and to allow interested students and faculty to chat with inmates partaking in the Villanova undergraduate degree program.

The value of such a trip is immeasurable, and many lessons are learned from participating in the event.

I have gone twice during my four years at Villanova, and the experience has opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about the problems with our criminal justice system and ways to solve these problems. The program enables people to see that the inmates cannot be demonized and seen as inhuman, and demonstrates that our criminal justice policies must reflect this understanding.

Once we overcome this ideological hurdle and realize that things are not so black and white, we can begin to take action by proposing and implementing appropriate policy initiatives.