Franciscans are much on our minds these days. Our recently elected pontiff, the first to do so, has taken the name of the founder of that Order renowned for its charity. With a Jesuit pope assuming a Franciscan name will the world witness our minds and our hearts unifying their powers in the advance of the Kingdom?
Perhaps. But, we needn’t go to Rome for an example of this enlightened collaboration. There is one in Loudenville, New York.
There the faculty and students of Siena College under a program named ‘Siena College in Prison’ provide credit-bearing liberal arts courses to the men of Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility in order to empower those incarcerated souls with the power to build a better future for themselves. Motivated by the Franciscan value of service and their firm belief in the transformative power of a liberal arts education the professors, administrators and students in this Franciscan institution pool their money to purchase textbooks and supplies and then volunteer to teach more than 20 courses at McGregor, courses whose credits are transferable to other institutions of learning.
Nationwide 60 percent of inmates cannot read above the sixth grade level. This lack of education directly correlates with the inability to think critically, to find employment and to become productive members of society. Pursuing courses while in jail improves the self-esteem of these prisoners, gives them a jump-start on pursuing a degree post-release, and develops their critical thinking skills necessary to make good judgments about how their actions affect themselves and others. In the State of New York 40 percent of the formerly incarcerated return to prison within three years. ‘Siena College in Prison’ endeavors to reduce this level of recidivism.
The inmates at McGregor are not the only ones who benefit from this Franciscan interaction. The members of the Siena College community who volunteer their time and skill there find the experience to be among the most rewarding and inspiring in their academic careers. And the students who assist in the tutoring find their eyes opened to the world of service – a world invisible to so many on other college campuses. Truly, all around there is much to be found in the phrase: “the transformative power of a liberal arts education.”
How fortunate the inmates in McGregor are – imprisoned by ignorance and the law of justice they are liberated by the law of love.
Dana Robinson is the chair of the board of trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation.