MSU Billings News Services
Their paths may have had different routes — theft, forgery, addictions — but on Friday, 13 women had a shared status: graduate.
Time spent cultivating cynicism and mistrust was cast aside as the Montana Women’s Prison inmates became the latest group to graduate from the Pathways to Self-Sufficiency program offered by Montana State University Billings.
“The best part of all this is knowing that we can do something, and that I can go back to school,” said 35-year-old Rebecca Fowler.
Fowler and fellow inmates Amanda Sangrey and Toni DesJardin shared a few smiles prior to small ceremony inside the prison on Friday afternoon. The three of them call Great Falls home, but they also now see a future beyond the walls of a prison. Fowler, for example, wants to pursue her education and become a paralegal.
Others talk about attaining a psychology degree or opening their own hair salon. Still others, looking at extra year or so before they are eligible for parole, say they look forward to more classes on subjects like customer service or English or even basic study skills.
One of the featured graduates who spoke on Friday said the recently acquired education can open new doors.
“We now have the opportunity to shape the world we live in and shape it in a positive way,” said Gweynn Brown, noting that like the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, positive changes often take time and are not easy.
The inmates were also encouraged to look for new opportunities to chart a new path.
“There is a reason why things happen in our lives,” said Dr. Waded Cruzado, president of MSU Bozeman and the featured speaker for the event. “Sometimes we are the first ones to place limits and boundaries on ourselves. We think we are too different or we are scared of not having that opportunity to make a difference.”
Cruzado talked to the women about her experience being a Puerto Rican coming to Montana to take the helm of a flagship university. She was a first-generation college graduate in her family and she had no exposure to Montana, its culture or its people, she said. But taking time to envision possibilities enabled her to take on new challenges and make a difference in the lives of others, she said.
She encouraged the new graduates and the dozens of other inmates in the audience to think the same way. While losing an argument and even losing freedom may seem monumental, they still have their lives and the eventual ability to use them for a larger purpose.
“Sometimes we think losing an object or losing an argument is the most important thing,” Cruzado said. “But when we lose something that can be regained, like our freedom, then there is hope. The most important thing is our lives and as long as we can transform our live and make a positive transition, there is hope.”
The MSU president encouraged the women to continue their education, urging them to “open a book” and believe in themselves.
By and large, upper-level education is a rare commodity in prison. Statistics show that about 30 percent of the inmates in the prison have neither a GED nor a high school diploma. And having specific skills to enter the workplace upon probation and re-entry into society is sometimes equally rare.
A demonstration program funded by $600,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice and a partnership with the Montana Department of Corrections and the Montana Job Service, the program offers college-level course and workforce training inside the prison walls. Women who qualify for the program take courses in customer service, math, writing, reading, philosophy, small business planning, and a variety of workforce training. They also can get involved in programs that offer skills assessment and career planning.
In order to graduate, inmates must complete 124 hours of coursework in the curriculum “core” of math, reading, personal work skills development and writing, and must complete at least two electives. MSU Billings faculty and community members are hired to teach the classes and serve as mentors. Since its inception in 2008, 125 inmates have participated in the program and 73 have completed the required hours, said Kim Gillan, who directs the program through MSU Billings Downtown.
The program is designed to give women marketable skills they can use to support themselves and their families once they are released, Gillan said. And if they are successful in getting and keeping jobs, they are less likely to get into trouble and return to prison.
She said that the women in the program generally are committed to staying away from prison and using their skills to move their lives forward. Well-prepared workers are less likely to repeat criminal acts and more likely to become a contributor to society instead of a burden, she said.
Gillan said studies show that for every dollar invested in education and training, $6 is saved in correctional costs. The cost of a day in prison is about $121 and the cost of a day on probation and parole is about $5, she said.