The Chillon Project

header image showing clasped hands through prison bars

The Chillon Project

By Gerry Clum, D.C.

One of the most pressing problems in American society involves the remarkable numbers of men and women who are incarcerated for various offenses. As a nation we imprison more of our own than any other nation in the world. If those persons in juvenile detention environments are included, we move even farther ahead in our dubious first-place position globally.

A pressing problem for our country is the financial cost of imprisoning 750-800 of every 100,000 people in the land. In 2012 CBS News reported per capita costs, depending upon the state involved, of between $31,000 and $60,000 per year. The annual estimate of the cost of prisons in the United States as of 2012 was in excess of $63 billion dollars.

Yet the burden of the current incarceration crisis cannot be measured in the cost of prison facilities alone. From a humanitarian standpoint, the cost to our society in terms of lost productivity, disruption of families, long-term post-incarceration expenses, the fracturing of our society, and the lack of fulfillment of human potential dwarfs the financial losses involved.

Many bright people have attempted to positively impact the circumstances in our culture that have led to this situation, with varying levels of success. Some have taken a poverty reduction perspective, other successes have come from re-examining the criminal justice system itself, and even more success has been had with diversion programs for low-level crimes.

The problem would be far more manageable if it were a “one and done” process, that is, if once a person was imprisoned and released they never engaged the system again. Unfortunately, 4 times out of 10, that is not how it works. In excess of 40% of offenders in the United States will return to the prison system again, typically within just a few years. Often they return again and again. Yet this is not fated to be. Incarcerated persons who receive educational programs are repeatedly shown to have lower recidivism rates. The Bedford Hills College Program in New York, run by Marymount Manhattan College, has a recidivism rate of 1.5% among those who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree while incarcerated, 26 times better than the national average!

In fact, according to a comprehensive study done by the RAND Corporation, one of the only things that has been shown to reduce recidivism systematically and effectively is education. At first glance it seems simple enough. If increased educational opportunities result in lower recidivism rates surely that would be a prudent investment to lessen the burden of mass incarceration on the nation. Unfortunately it is not that simple. Despite the arguments of economics and lower recidivism, efforts at higher education for incarcerated persons have been stymied by the political outcry of those who perceive these educational opportunities as being a “reward” for bad behavior.

As a young chiropractor I remember Life University’s founder, Dr. Sid Williams offering two prison references over and over again. He often spoke about our vision being “to bankrupt the hospitals, empty the jails and fill up the churches” through the full impact of our lives as chiropractors. Dr. Williams didn’t offer this perspective as a matter of health policy or social policy, but rather as a vision for the individual chiropractor of what could be when a happy, healthy populace replaced a sick and suffering populace.

I also remember Dr. Williams quoting passages from Lord Byron’s “The Prisoner of Chillon” speaking about the things that influence our lives. Dr. Williams encouraged us to heed Byron’s warning in the poem: “So much a long communion tends to make us what we are.” The question before us became “Could there be a way for Life University to help change the calculus of the American prison environment by altering the ‘communion’ of those at the center of it all?”

The Birth of the Chillon Project

In 2012 Life University began the development of an emphasis within its Psychology Department on the rapidly expanding field of positive psychology. In a nutshell the discipline of positive psychology looks at mental health the way we as chiropractors look at physical health. Positive psychology fully accepts that mental illness can be demonstrated by various symptoms and behavioral patterns, while also appreciating that the absence of symptoms of mental illness does not by definition imply mental health and well-being. This is very similar to the idea that the mere absence of physical symptoms does not necessarily imply the full presence of physical health and well-being. In fact one of the current hot topics in positive psychology involves “flourishing” as a goal of life, rather than merely not having mental illness. It is not a stretch for chiropractors to grasp this idea.

The developments at Life University’s Psychology Department, which led to the establishment of one of the few Master’s in Positive Psychology programs in the world, were supported in a very serendipitous manner by efforts in other areas of the University, in particular The Octagon.

Founded in 2007, the Octagon was established to bring about far-reaching dialogue in eight areas of central interest to Life University. These included Contemporary Scientific Paradigms; Leadership and Entrepreneurship; and Integrity and Citizenship. In 2013 President Riekeman, who envisioned The Octagon at Life University, asked the Octagon to initiate a five-year focus on Integrity and Citizenship.

It did not take very long to see the resources that were available to The Octagon through the recently expanded Positive Psychology program at Life. One of the very important “resources” was a new faculty member, Brendan Ozawa-de Silva, D. Phil., who had recently left Emory University to join the Positive Psychology program at Life.

Dr. Ozawa-de Silva brought with him a life-changing experience from ten years prior. In 2003 in New York, he attended his first lecture series by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. One afternoon session His Holiness arrived a few minutes late at the hall, explaining that he had just been to visit a local prison and had received a briefing on the extent of incarceration in American society. Before resuming his lecture he made a few comments, suggesting that while he as a Tibetan would not presume to know what to do to solve this problem in our country, the audience as Americans needed to find a way to address this pressing and saddening problem. Dr. Ozawa-de Silva was moved by these words and the call to action and later become involved in prison education, teaching at a Georgia state prison alongside faculty volunteers from Emory University, Mercer University and other colleges in the area. He learned that several of these faculty members were trying to work towards a degree program for incarcerated persons, but no university had been willing to step up to the challenge.

As the discussions of The Octagon on Integrity and Citizenship unfolded over the remainder of 2013 and through 2014, they led to the call for the formation of a center within The Octagon that would bridge research and community action around positive values. This resulted in the creation of the Center for Compassion, Integrity and Secular Ethics (CCISE). The Center’s creation was enthusiastically supported by President Riekeman who spearheaded the campaign for approval of the Center by the University’s Board of Trustees in 2014.

One of the first projects of the Center (CCISE) involved prison-based educational offerings and the potential for CCISE to present a low-cost, high impact project that was consistent with the theme of Integrity and Citizenship and fully embraced within the values, vision and mission of the Center. Thus the Chillon Project was born.
The naming of the project seemed to be a natural outflow of the discussion tying our current efforts under the leadership and direction of President Riekeman with the vision and dream of our founder Dr. Williams, reaching back in our history to connect the past with the present under the same consistent banner of Lasting Purpose—loving, giving, serving and doing out of a sense of abundance.

With an organizational framework in place, an appropriate name for the effort and a massive need before us, the dreaming and conjuring phase morphed into the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work phase. We began by turning to the literature published in the area of prison-based education and then turned to the people who were providing this service in various forms at locations in Georgia and then at locations across the country. We found a very tight-knit community of people, some of whom had been at these efforts for decades, ready and willing to help us better understand the need, the challenges and the strategies to try and make it work. “It” became a very bold undertaking—the on-site presentation of Associate- and Bachelor-level degree programs for incarcerated persons. When we jumped to this level we found the pool of involvement got considerably smaller and more focused. There were a number of programs offering university-level courses on a non-credit, non-degree basis but there were very few that had stepped forward to offer degree programs.

Then in the most serendipitous aspect of all we learned that we were at a moment in time in Georgia where the governor was completing his final term in office and had expressed a deep and sincere desire to see prison reform, especially related to education, be one of the legacies of his service to the State of Georgia. This legacy fulfillment had begun to play out months before in the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) with the creation of a new position, Assistant Commissioner for Education, and the appointment of a forward-thinking educator and administrator in this position who wanted to see the governor’s ambitions relative to prison reform realized, Dr. Buster Evans.

In an interesting coincidence the offices of the Georgia Department of Corrections can be found on the beautiful grounds of the former campus of Tift College in Forsyth, Georgia. It was here that we enjoyed one of the most exciting meetings of this entire effort with Assistant Commissioner Buster Evans and senior members of his staff. We explored how we might be able to work together to do something special for Georgia, Life University and for a select group of incarcerated persons whose circumstances and behaviors could make them eligible for our consideration as participants in the envisioned program. From this meeting emerged a draft memorandum of understanding being considered jointly by Life University and the GDC.

By the end of March 2015 a one-day mini-conference for the Chillon Project was conceived, organized and completed, bringing together faculty from Life University, Emory University, Georgia State University and Kennesaw University who were involved in higher education in prisons. The first half of the day involved a workshop hosting Rebecca Ginsburg, Ph.D, Director of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Education Justice Project (EJP). The afternoon was highlighted by a roundtable discussion involving Dr. Ginsburg as well as Dr. Buster Evans and his senior staff from the Georgia Department of Corrections. The nexus of institutional vision and desire, faculty interest, experienced mentors and supportive governmental authorities was a first for everyone involved.
April 22, 2015 was the next big day in the life of the Chillon Project as Life University President, Guy F. Riekeman, assembled a working group involving every affected office of the University from admissions to accreditation, the registrar, finance, the library, human resources, and the Vice-President for Academic Affairs, to explore what would be needed from every corner of the University to make this project work. Remember this wasn’t offering a course or two, it was offering accredited degree programs in a prison setting with the same demands and resources needed for the same program on campus. We were thrilled at the meeting to see all areas of the university respond positively to this initiative, an indication that despite the challenge of instituting something so ambitious and new, our chances of success were good.

Much has already been accomplished to bring us closer to our goal of offering Associate’s and Bachelor’s level programs in a prison setting, but much more remains to be done. At every turn we have been encouraged in this effort by the institution, the President, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff and students. We have also received our first grant in support of this effort in the amount of $10,000, even prior to beginning formal fundraising efforts.

We have estimated the direct new costs to the University, which we must generate, at approximately $1,500 per student per year, and we have set an initial goal of a maximum of 30 students per year. If you can see the vision of this effort and appreciate the value it will create for the people of Georgia and for those seeking to change their path in life we welcome your support—emotionally, morally and financially. For more information and to keep abreast of the most current developments of the Chillon Project visit http://www.life.edu/ccise or email us at ccise@life.edu.

If you’re prepared to help support the project with a gift, pleas visit https://alumni.life.edu/ChillonProject.

 

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Gerry Clum, D.C.

Director, The Octagon
Life University

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