University Relations and Communications

MSU Billings program puts inmates on path to self sufficiency

May 26, 2010



Kim Gillan, Workforce Development Coordinator, 896-5878
Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269 


Second cohort of students in Montana Women’s Prison graduate from demonstration project


MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — Their paths all had different routes — theft, forgery, addictions — but last week, seven women shared the same status: graduate.


Governor Brian Schweitzer speaks at the graduation ceremony at the Montana Women's PrisonYears spent cultivating cynicism and mistrust were cast aside as the Montana Women’s Prison inmates were awarded certificates for graduating from the “Pathways to Self-Sufficiency” program offered by Montana State University Billings.


“Today is a major accomplishment for us,” said Twila Johnke, one of the graduates who also was the featured inmate speaker.


For her fellow inmates in the program, that sentiment could not be overstated. Education is a rare commodity in prison. Only about one in four inmates in the women’s prison have a high school diploma and about 30 percent have neither a GED nor a diploma. And having specific skills to enter the workplace upon probation and re-entry into society is sometimes equally rare.


The “Pathways to Self-Sufficiency” program was designed to address those gaps.


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 family economics, math, writing, reading, philosophy, carpentry, construction, small business planning, graphic design and concrete fundamentals. 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 about two years ago, 75 inmates have participated in the program.


The program is designed to give women marketable skills they can use to support themselves and their families once they are released, said Kim Gillan, who directs the effort through the MSU Billings College of Professional Studies and Lifelong Learning. And if they are successful in getting and keeping jobs, they are less likely to get into trouble and return to prison.


“It’s a real win-win for public safety,” she said. “What we’re doing here is part of a national trend in corrections to not just warehouse inmates, but to educate and train them.”


She said that the women in the program are “sticking with it” and sincere about staying away from prison. 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.


05-21 prison grad jenny.jpgGillan 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.


Many women in prison have expressed interest in pursuing jobs or going to college, but for one reason or another, never performed well in school before. Courses in the program were designed to boost those skills, give them confidence and focus on positive activities.


“Thanks to this, for the first time in my life I want to go on to college and do something with my life,” one graduate told a news reporter at the graduation ceremony last week. “Coming here, sitting around and doing nothing won’t get us anywhere.”


The program is no walk in the park. The women are expected to commit to the classes and participating. They’ve done scale-model size designs on home construction, have pushed the envelope on their personal beliefs in philosophy classes and have laid bare their feelings of life as a convict for a book. The most recent class is completed a concrete pour this week for a new basketball court in the prison yard.


Many of the teachers say they’ve benefited as much as the inmate students.


“This was one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done,” said Karen Henderson, who teaches English part-time at MSU Billings and pulled together a series of essays by inmates for the book “Brick by Brick: A Legacy of Memories.”


The 10 essays provide insights into the lives of some women as they reflect on choices they’ve made, relationships they’ve had and futures they envision. One inmate writes about having a baby as a prisoner — and then giving it up for adoption. Another writes about a series of relationships that led her to drug addiction and crime. Another writes about her journey to sobriety.


While Henderson said she emphasized the importance of academic writing, the project was to help the inmates learn they could accomplish the task.


And that was the main point.


As Gov. Brian Schweitzer emphasized during graduation ceremonies, they are capable of completing something that has a positive effect on their lives instead of perpetuating destructive habits and behaviors.


“It isn’t about winning and being first all the time,” Schweitzer said, noting that people who are dealt a blow in life have choices to move forward. “By doing this, you are proving to yourself that you can finish something and do well.”


Photos above: Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer gives remarks at the May 21 graduation ceremony for inmates at the Montana Women’s Prison who completed the Pathways to Self-Sufficiency program at the prison. The unique program, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, is provided by MSU Billings.


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