Chillon Project

New Life University graduates at Arrendale State Prison turn their tassels to the left. January 28, 2019.
New Life University graduates at Arrendale State Prison turn their tassels to the left. January 28, 2019.

New Life University graduates at Arrendale State Prison turn their tassels to the left. January 28, 2019.

On January 28, 2019, eleven studentsincarcerated at Arrendale State Prison, a maximum security prison in Alto, GA, graduated with their Associate of Arts degree in Positive Human Development and Social Change from Life University.  The students earned an average cumulative GPA of 3.9 and will go on to complete the Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology starting in January 2020. Their graduation reflects an ongoing shift in the landscape of higher education in prison in Georgia. This is the first class of students in a Georgia state women’s prison to graduate from an accredited college degree program since 1994, when Pell Grants were banned for incarcerated people as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of that year; it is only the second class to graduate with a degree in any prison in the state in that time.

The Chillon Project at Life University

Life University student and Chillon scholarship recipient Kareemah Hanifa delivers a TEDx Talk
Life University student and Chillon scholarship recipient Kareemah Hanifa delivers a TEDx Talk

Life University student and Chillon scholarship recipient Kareemah Hanifa delivers a TEDx Talk.

The last forty years have seen a dramatic increase in rates of incarceration in the United States. We now incarcerate approximately 2.3 million people, while 7 million are under some form of correctional control. Even our least punitive individual states have higher per capita rates of incarceration than authoritarian nations around the world. As a means of promoting public safety, mass incarceration has been a failure. Crime has decreased dramatically since the 1990s, but rising rates of incarceration played only a small role in this decrease and came with severe costs: mass incarceration has meant separating people from their families while exposing them to violence and trauma at extraordinarily high rates; it has had a ripple effect on friends, neighbors, families, and children of incarcerated people; and all of these effects have been concentrated among communities who already face systemic inequality and exclusion. Mass incarceration is fueled by and implicated in racial and economic injustice—if, at the individual level, it promotes widespread trauma, at the social level it is one of the most powerful existing engines of white supremacy.

The Chillon Project is an undertaking of the Center for Compassion, Integrity, and Secular Ethics at Life University to address this crisis by expanding access to higher education for the people whom it affects the most—incarcerated people, correctional staff, and returning citizens—in the state of Georgia. The initiative takes its name from the poem by Lord Byron entitled “The Prisoner of Chillon.” Life University’s founder and first president, Dr. Sid Williams, used to recite passages of this poem to draw attention to how environments influence our lives. He noted Byron’s key message: “So much a long communion tends to make us what we are.” The question before us at Life University became, “Could we address the crisis of mass incarceration by transforming the ‘communion’ of those at the center of it all?”

Why Provide Higher Education in Prison?

A growing body of evidence-based research has shown that providing higher education in prison contributes to the well-being of incarcerated people, their children, and their communities inside and outside of prison. College degree programs have been shown to have the greatest impact of any educational programs on recidivism, the rate at which people released from prison return to prison. Our program is not primarily motivated by reducing costs or rates of recidivism, however. We believe that all people should have access to opportunities that enable them to fulfill their human potential and benefit others. We also believe that if we wish to end the crisis of mass incarceration, we must empower the people whose lives it affects the most directly to be leaders, teachers, and healers. We have already seen students take what they learn about childhood development, for example, about trauma’s effects on the body and mind, or about conflict transformation, and share it with other dorm- and bunkmates, staff, and their families.

Life University’s Degree Programs at Arrendale State Prison

Life University provides an Associate of Arts degree in Positive Human Development and Social Change and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at Lee Arrendale State Prison, a maximum security women’s facility in Alto, Georgia. The coursework for these degree programs is also offered at the main campus and includes core liberal arts classes—math, biology, and english composition, for example—alongside courses such as Creativity and the Arts, Conflict Transformation, Critical Social Analysis, Environmental and Secular Ethics, and Peace Studies. The curriculum focuses on developing social entrepreneurs and transformative leaders, with an understanding that leaders need tools of critical social analysis, social skills, and the practice of cultivating inner values. Extensive research has shown that ethical and emotional values can be taught as skills and can enhance other aspects of leadership, including conflict resolution and communication, that we emphasize in the program.

For more information about Chillon, visit www.compassion.life.edu. You can also email questions about Chillon directly to Thomas Fabisiak at Thomas.Fabisiak@LIFE.edu.

Additional Facts about the Chillon Project

  • Arrendale State Prison is designated by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) as a site of Life University. The AA in PHDSC and BS in Psychology are accredited degrees equal in rigor and content to those offered on the main campus of Life University.
  • Life has enrolled two cohorts of incarcerated students since 2016, with thirty total students enrolled since then.
  • Over half of our students at Arrendale State Prison (56%) are mothers, with a total of 46 children.
  • Starting in 2019, Life University will begin offering upper division coursework leading to a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at Arrendale State Prison. The students who have completed the AA in PHDSC will continue on to their Bachelor’s degree.
  • In addition to traditional core classes in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, students take classes in the AA in PHDSC take Conflict Transformation; Positive Business; Spirituality, Integrity, and Transformational Leadership; and Ethical and Moral Reasoning, among other courses.
  • Students have written business proposals for social enterprises, competed in Lincoln-Douglas style debates, created educational modules in social and emotional learning for K-12 students, written sociological literature reviews, and composed grant proposals.
  • All of our students also complete Compassionate Integrity Training (CIT), a multi-part training program that cultivates basic human values as skills. Students have the option to go on to be trained as facilitators in this program so that they can share what they have learned with others in their incarcerated setting as well as with their families.
  • An on-going study of the program found that students scored higher than a control group in a control group in measures of personal, social, and emotional well-being. Results showed a significant positive impact on participants’ resilience, overall mental health, and ability to manage emotions, for example, while participants experienced lower levels of depression, anger, and anxiety; students also reported improved relationships with correctional staff and children, better ability to handle conflict, and improved outlooks on their future.
  • Tuition, books, and supply costs are waived for all incarcerated students.
  • In the last two years, Chillon has provided full scholarships and enrolled six correctional officers and other staff people from Arrendale in degree programs at Life University’s main campus in Marietta, GA.
  • Students at Arrendale who are released before finishing their degree can also continue at the main campus; currently, two students who began the program at Arrendale are finishing their AAs in PHDSC outside of the prison.
  • Our program is funded by Life University, private donations, and a grant from the Laughing Gull Foundation (laughinggull.org)who have been transforming the landscape of higher education in prison in the south through their support of these programs.

The Georgia Coalition on Higher Education and Prisons (GCHEP)

Chillon is part of a new coalition of a growing number of programs in Georgia dedicated to empowering incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in the state to pursue higher education. The coalition also includes the following programs that provide higher education in Georgia State Prisons:

Reforming Arts (www.reformingarts.org)

 The Certificate in Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (candler.emory.edu/programs-resources/institutes-initiatives/certificate-in-theological.studies.html)

Common Good Atlanta (www.commongoodatlanta.com)

 The Georgia State University Prison Education Project (perimeter.gsu.edu/gsupep/)

For questions about joining or supporting GCHEP or Chillon, please email Thomas.Fabisiak@LIFE.edu

For information on future projects and updates on the Center please subscribe to our newsletter.

Student Testimonials

“This is an update on the effects of the program in relation to my mental status thus far. Others in my class may’ve experienced this already, or not. I may be early into this development, or late. Nonetheless, I’ve recently started experiencing something so profound that the act of putting it into words seems to reduce the greatness of it all. I fear it will leave it sounding simplistic and you wondering why I even bothered to write this letter.

The parameters of my mind have expanded so much so that I now see my prior view of the world was muted, the sounds drowned out by useless static and seen at best through cataracts glossed over by idle time and a life lost. Everything is coming together now, as each class stacks wonderfully, complimenting the one before it. I never would’ve known the things that now occur to me so innocuously, were it not for this program. Now I see color; I see mechanisms and disciplines, science and beauty where before there was only shades of grey. Critical analysis and ‘aha’ moments have become the norm in a mind where they were before unheard of. Not only have you facilitated discovery for me, but you’ve given me the means to become the discoverer. It is awesome in every sense of the word. I am so utterly thankful for this education and no thanks will ever be adequate for a gift such as this. May my life serve it well.”

Student from the class of 2019


“Life University has changed my life. When I first entered this school, I was searching for a way to make a difference in the world around me because my daughter had been shot and I knew that I needed to do something. I could not just sit and do nothing. Life University offered me the opportunity to be the change that I needed to see in the world. I also was able to teach my daughter some of the practices that was drawn upon in the Compassion Integrity Training class. My daughter suffered from PTSD and in me sharing my knowledge with her she now holds a group with other teenagers like herself who experienced trauma. So, not only is Life University helping me, it is helping my daughter as well. I would not trade this experience for nothing in the world.”

Student from the class of 2020


“I am a first year student in the Life University program here at Arrendale. I want to express my sheer appreciation for the trickledown effect this program has had on my family. For over five years I have been encouraging my 25-year-old daughter to go to college. I have impressed on her that education is something that no one can ever take away from you and the benefits will last a lifetime. I have been sharing my college experience with her. She has subsequently enrolled in college on her own. I am so grateful for this life changing program. It is true that when one person in a family goes to college it changes the course for the whole family. I feel that my grandchildren and their children throughout the generations will reap the benefits of this college education.”

Student from the Class of 2020


“As a black transgender man and convicted violent felon, the opportunity to have access to higher education based on Positive Human Development and Social Change has been a profound experience.  I had given up hope that I would be granted equal life chances because I felt as if my life did not matter.  Through the course curriculum I have come to realize how the systems of society are constructed while developing a set of skills that will equip me with creatively applying solutions to social issues.  I aspire to be an advocate for the LGBTQ community and incarcerated women in order to give a voice and a face for those who have been isolated, marginalized, and ousted by society.  The AA degree that I am receiving from Life University has provided me with the courage, resources, and education that I need to fight for social justice.”

Student from the class of 2020


“The phenomenal powerful impact to be involved with Life University has been an experience that I would love to continue throughout my life, and the many lives that I may come in contact with. The Chillon Project has given my life new meaning by allowing myself and others to achieve higher education, and to explore many different avenues. I am able to be a refined role model for my children because they can deflate the circumstances that landed their mother in prison, and amplify the fact that I am using this time wisely to develop for the better good. We are able to come together to create meaningful ideas to be pushed into the world. You have a sense of making a difference in the community and the world we live in today. I am not only a role model to my children, but to the other women that spend time here as well. I always encourage them to join, and be a part of something that is so great.”

Student from the class of 2020


“Recently I learned the literal definition of education. It is derived from the Latin word educere, which means to lead out of. This new definition led me to think deeply about the role and importance of education. Furthermore, it helped me to fully appreciate the life changing gift that I received by being allowed to obtain my Associates of Arts degree in Positive Human Development and Social Change. In my opinion, the role of education is to awaken the student and teacher to a higher level of consciousness. Education should challenge present structures that oppress, exclude and harm people. It should lead one out of the ignorance of the status quo and enable learners to not only understand society, but to critique it and change it. Education is a liberator for it makes us conscious of the systems (whether abstract or concrete) that enslave us, and it encourages us to be pioneers in the field of social change. Life University has successfully done that and taught me that the goal is not simply to change policies and laws, but to change hearts. That focus has to be self and other concentrated for it be effective and sustainable.

This education has liberated me. I am no longer a prisoner to my ignorance or the ideologies taught by culture and society. Though physically incarcerated, I am free. I am freer than I have ever been in my life. My life truly began when I was accepted into Life University. Life University has given me a newfound purpose. I aspire to give my life to things that matter, for I know how it feels when the structures of society do not support your life. I know that social change can be considered a difficult and lofty idea, but it is the most important work of one’s life and to have a degree focused on such is the most valuable gem in this world.”

Thank you.”

Student from the class of 2019