Education Behind Bars: Marianist encounters towards a brighter future
This update comes to us from Bro. Ed Brink, SM, Vice President for Mission and Rector at Chaminade University of Honolulu.
Dr. Janet Davidson is a leader in criminology. She has spent decades researching in the field, mentored hundreds of students, published a long list of peer-reviewed papers in scholarly journals. Put simply, she’s seen it all—so she was surprised to be surprised when she started teaching behind bars. Last year, she spearheaded Chaminade’s innovative effort to launch a Second Chance Pell Grant program at Halawa Correctional Facility. Inmates are given the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree in Business Administration after completing core and major-specific courses over two and a half years. In addition to overseeing administration of the initiative, Davidson is one of the teachers for participants—nine in all after some natural attrition in the inaugural cohort. She expected classes with the inmates to be interesting, exciting and different. But she didn’t count on learning so much, too. “It’s incredibly rewarding,” said Davidson, who is also vice provost for Academic Affairs at Chaminade. “They’re eager and they want to learn and they do their homework. I’m so proud Chaminade was able to launch this program. We educate for service, justice and peace and this program does that.” Davidson said years of research have shown educational programs in prisons help bolster job opportunities for people once they get out of prison and decrease the chances they’ll re-offend. And while there’s a stigma around inmates, Davidson said, the students in the cohort continue to impress her. “They’re just the best,” she said. “They’re not distracted by cell phones. They know this is a privilege so they’re engaged. It’s just a pleasure to have them in the classroom.”
Albert Batalona is one of those students. He said he applied to participate in the “second chance” program because he wants to be able to secure a better-paying job after he gets out of prison. He also hopes society sees his degree as proof that he can make a positive contribution to society. “I’m really trying my best to learn all I can and take this seriously,” Batalona said, adding he’s enjoyed being able to connect with professors. “They have come to really teach us, not just go through the motions. They held no prejudice against me for my past mistake, something I’m not used to.”
Participant Anthony Chatman said it’s tough to always be judged by those past mistakes, but he’s hopeful Chaminade’s program could help change that. “Many in our community feel that we shouldn’t be given a second chance at freedom, let alone given the opportunity to educate ourselves,” he said.
That’s something John Granger has grappled with, too. The 37-year-old said earning an associate’s degree through the prison program will give him an opportunity to start over. “I have for a while had some good ideas, but I lacked the resources to convert those ideas into dreams and those dreams into goals,” said Granger, a Maui resident. “I believe that not only if you know better you do better, but if you know deeper you will achieve greater.”
Kelson Akeo said he wanted to apply for the program for a simple reason: he wanted to be the first person in his family to get a college degree. “I wanted to prove to myself that I can be more than just a construction worker,” he said. “I can be a person who can utilize both mind and body.” Akeo said while he is still serving his time, he’s beginning to see a new and brighter future for himself. “Earning this degree will show me that I am worthy of having a brilliant future,” he said, adding his experience so far in the program has been a “rollercoaster” of emotions. Sometimes, he’s feeling proud about how far he’s made it. Other times, he feels overwhelmed and wants to give up. “But then I hear that little voice saying to me, ‘you got this’ since enrolling into this program and working towards my degree changed me to be more appreciative to those who believe in giving second chances,” he said, adding he is so thankful to his professors and their belief in him.
“These instructors make me feel free again and that is a very rare feeling to have in prison.”
Davidson said it has been incredibly rewarding to see the program’s students build their confidence bit by bit as they tackle new assignments and grasp new concepts. Together, the cohort has completed a variety of courses since launching in Fall 2021, including business administration, accounting, English, communication, biology and math. Davidson says it’s a joy teaching at the prison especially in her most recent course, Contemporary Issues in Criminal Justice. She says while the participants obviously bring personal experiences to the topic, they have focused on broadening their perspective with readings and class discussions. “They wanted to understand the larger context and that’s powerful,” she said.
She called one of the students her “encyclopedia” because he’s so well-read and frequently brings newspaper clippings to class that connect with what’s being taught. Another student finished his GED in prison and can’t wait to finish the AA. “I’ve seen him coming into his own,” Davidson said.
Keola Rapoza chose to join the program because he wanted his years behind bars to count for something. He will also be the first person in his family to earn a college degree. “My experience so far has been awesome even though I’m doing a college program in prison and not in a college campus setting,” he said. “What I like most about this program is the professors are patient with us.” Patient, he added, as in understanding inmates can’t always get access to the prison’s learning center and are sometimes further restricted by COVID lockdowns. And Rapoza said he’s proud to be paving the way for other inmates in the islands and setting a positive example. “Education is the most important thing in life,” he said. “I feel if everybody in this world was educated, there would be world peace.”
Nikkos Gordon has wanted to pursue a college degree since he was sentenced in 2012, and the Chaminade program has allowed him to think about what’s next in life. “I wanted to prove to others and myself that I can do this and I’ve always been able to do this,” Gordon said. “I wanted to show myself that I’ve changed and grew from the teenage boy who didn’t care much about pursuing a higher education. This program has shown me there are people who won’t treat me like an animal.” Gordon added while he’s faced many obstacles on his academic journey, he’s determined to move forward. “I feel like knowledge is power and we can only change through education,” he said. “Society is so focused on retributivism it forgets that we’re still people even though we’ve made mistakes.”
Raphael Holley is so engaged in soaking up new knowledge he frequently writes down the books his professors mention so he can ask his family to order them and send them his way. “The experience has been a blessing for me,” he said. “It helps me to stay out trouble and it has given me another chance. Enrolling in this program and working towards my degree has changed my perspective.”
As part of the program, federal Pell Grant funding—through a pilot program—and private donations cover the costs of all tuition, books, and fees. Students had to apply and be selected for the first cohort.
COVID presented an additional obstacle, including frequent pandemic-prompted lockdowns.
Davidson said the cohort will graduate in Spring 2023 and the next group will begin that Fall.
“If we want safer communities, if we want healthier families, if we want people who are incarcerated to have a chance when they come out, these are the types of rehabilitative programs we should be offering,” she said. “The idea is to shift the mindset. It will cost society less in the end.”
Ronald Page can attest to the power of the program.
He said the classes and discussions keep his mind sharp—and leave him wanting more.
“I know I’m doing something positive for myself,” he said.