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Clark Roush leads an emotional rendition of "Amazing Grace" during a teacher appreciation ceremony at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York.
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Photo by Chrystal Houston

Band of sisters

Christian college brings an associate's degree program — and Jesus — into a Nebraska prison for women.

YORK, Neb.— ‘A lot of us come here thinking there is no God,” said LaToya Ross.   

The 35-year-old is serving a 50- to 70-year sentence for second-degree murder, a crime she committed under the influence of methamphetamines five years ago. She won’t be eligible for parole until she’s 55.

When she came to the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women, at the west edge of the small town of York, “I didn’t see any future,” she said. Then she learned about the Second Chance Education Program offered by York College, a school associated with Churches of Christ. 

Angela Manns

Angela Manns

“I had been in college several different times,” Ross said. “With all the distractions, I didn’t stay.”

The distractions are fewer here. Inmates aren’t even allowed cell phones in the prison. But the program’s professors see past the mug shots and rap sheets, Ross said, and treat the inmates like their students on York’s campus. 

As a result, she said, “We show up hungry for knowledge.”

OPPORTUNITIES AND RECIDIVISM

On the inside, the correctional facility, complete with beige-brick dormitories and neatly manicured walkways, resembles a college campus — albeit one surrounded by 20-foot fences topped with razor wire.  

Opened in 1920, the 275-bed prison is Nebraska’s only secure correctional facility for adult women, housing maximum, medium and minimum custody inmates. 

In a multipurpose room at the facility’s heart — an A-frame that resembles the meeting place of many Churches of Christ —  inmate students sit two to a table and study business, preparing reports on entrepreneurs. One student has chosen Joseph Gayetty, who, in 1857, marketed a product called “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper for the Water-Closet.” He’s credited with the invention of toilet paper.

Terry Seufferlein

Terry Seufferlein

Terry Seufferlein, associate professor of Bible for York College, initiated the Second Chance program — inspired by a similar program offered by Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., which also is associated with Churches of Christ. 

The York program offers up to 12 students per cohort the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree through four years of part-time study. The first 11 students will graduate Aug. 14. 

Since the program launched, “we have so many more opportunities now,” said student Angela Manns. When she is released in a few years, she hopes to earn a criminal justice degree and work as a paralegal.

Providing inmates with some college education reduces recidivism by 30-50 percent, according to studies cited by Seufferlein, while an associate’s degree reduces recidivism by almost two-thirds. The cost of educating an inmate is much less than the money required to prosecute and incarcerate a repeat offender. 

Donors provided initial funding for the program, which in July received a $110,000 grant from Nebraska’s Department of Corrections to continue the program through 2020.

In addition to the educational and financial benefits, “in the last two years, I’ve seen a shift in our ladies. It’s hope,” Manns said. “Each of us is now looking forward to life outside these gates.”

‘YOU ARE MY AMAZING GRACE’

After the inmates became classmates, they quickly became teammates, helping each other study and complete assignments, said Bridgette Mann as she took a break after history class. The group is learning about World War II though Stephen E. Ambrose’s book “Band of Brothers.”

“We all stick together,” said Mann, who wants to be a drug and alcohol counselor and to open a homeless shelter after she’s released. “Right now we’re like a band of sisters.” 

Classroom topics go far beyond history — and toilet paper. The inmates take Bible courses as part of the curriculum.

Seeletter Livingston

Seeletter Livingston

Before she enrolled, “I didn’t even know the books of the Bible,” Mann said. Now, she sees value and finds comfort in God’s Word. Another student, Seeletter Livingston, said that Bible knowledge can be an asset in prison.

“Being in this type of environment, you need something strong to stand on,” Livingston said. 

Last year the students hosted a Teacher Appreciation Day for their instructors, organized by student Jennifer Kerby.

“I once was lost, but God has given me a second chance,” Kerby told the audience of York College faculty and staff, prison staff and fellow students. “You teach us faith and give me hope for my future … You are my amazing grace.”

The feeling was mutual, said Clark Roush, professor of music, after leading the assembly in the song “Amazing Grace.” As Roush’s booming baritone swelled, many in the room wiped away tears.

“You have been an amazing grace in my own life, in my own heart,” Roush told the students. “You have changed the way that I think about things. You’ve changed my life … and I came out here expecting it to be the other way around.”

‘YOUR MORALS CHANGE’

Ross, who came into prison hopeless, said she now finds strength in the Bible — especially the letters written by the apostle Paul from prison. It seems like every time she has a Bible study, the words speak comfort to whatever adversity she’s facing, she added.

Jennifer Kerby

Jennifer Kerby

On York College’s campus, during chapel, students’ names are read on their birthdays, including Second Chance students. That means a lot, Ross said. A few York students have even visited them for class, studying alongside them and eating lunch in the prison commissary. 

“They’ll never complain about their cafeteria again,” one of the inmates chimed in.

Beyond teaching, Ross said that the professors “introduce Christ to us. They want students to understand.” As a result, “your morals change. Your integrity changes. It ripples into the administration and other inmates. 

“Doors open, windows open. Blessings just flow in.”

Filed under: News Partners Prison education prison ministry Top Stories York

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