The Chillon Project at Life University provides credit-bearing classes and degrees to people in prison and formerly incarcerated people in Georgia; creates a learning community grounded in principles of compassion and conflict transformation; and shares resources and builds skills that enable people to thrive, benefit others, and build the world they wish to see.
Life University offers two degree programs through Chillon at Arrendale State Prison, a maximum-security women’s facility in Alto, Georgia. Seventeen students are currently earning their Associate of Arts in Positive Human Development and Social Change (AA in PHDSC) at Arrendale, and seventeen more have completed the AA in PHDSC and are now earning their Bachelor of Science in Psychology. Eight students have left Arrendale and five are earning degrees through distance education or at the main campus of the University. Chillon also includes full scholarships for correctional staff and formerly incarcerated students who began Life U degrees while in prison. These scholarships enable students to complete a Life University undergraduate degree of their choice.
Life University AA in PHDSC graduates, January 2020.
“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 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 to be effective and sustainable.”
–Student from the BS in Psychology class of 2022
The degree programs offered at Arrendale reflect Chillon’s aims to empower students to be compassionate leaders and agents of social change. Courses emphasize critical analysis of systems, understanding of our interdependence and common humanity, and development of inner strengths such as resilience, compassion, emotional intelligence, and ethical mindfulness.
The AA in PHDSC provides an interdisciplinary liberal arts education. Alongside traditional courses such as English Composition and Biology the curriculum includes Creativity and the Artful Life, Environmental Ethics, Conflict Transformation, Identity and Otherness, Spiritual Autobiography, and other courses that build creativity, ethical reflection, effective communication, and critical analysis.
In the BS in Psychology, students take classes ranging from Research Methods in Psychology and Statistics to Critical Social Theory, Artist as Social Change Agent, and the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. To earn the degree, students complete an original research project under the advisorship of University faculty.
Life University student and Chillon scholarship recipient Kareemah Hanifa delivers a TEDx Talk in September 2019.
“The Chillon Project is a testament to Life University’s sincere commitment to promoting secular ethics to bring about constructive solutions to social challenges. I hope those of you who read this will share my enthusiasm for the transformative potential represented in this endeavor.”
–His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “Letter in Support of the Chillon Project,” 2015
Providing high-quality postsecondary education in prison contributes to the well-being and empowerment of incarcerated people, with a ripple effect on children, families, and communities inside and outside of prison. Research on higher education in prison has tended to focus on its powerful impact on recidivism, the rate at which people released from prison return to prison.
Our program is not primarily motivated by reducing rates of recidivism, however: We believe that all people deserve access to educational resources that enable them to thrive personally while building the world they wish to see. We believe in addition that Universities have a special vocation to share resources with people who are impacted by racist systems, including people affected by mass incarceration and systemic exclusion from access to higher education. Chillon reflects Life University’s vitalistic commitment to dismantle barriers to people’s shared human capacity to heal, grow, and flourish.
“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…I feel that my grandchildren and their children throughout the generations will reap the benefits of this college education.”
–Student from the AA in PHDSC Class of 2020
AA in PHDSC class of 2020 graduate Darchelle Arnold receiving her degree from Life University President Rob Scott.
The Chillon Project began in 2015, when Brendan Ozawa-de Silva, then a member of Life University’s faculty, was teaching courses on Buddhism and Contemplative Practice at Arrendale under the auspices of a non-credit-bearing Certificate in Theological Studies administered by Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. The students in Dr. Ozawa-de Silva’s classes spoke passionately to him about their desire to be able to earn a college degree while incarcerated. He brought this message back to Life University’s erstwhile President, Dr. Guy Riekeman, in the form of a proposal to begin a degree program at Arrendale. Dr. Riekeman responded with an enthusiastic “yes,” and that affirmation has been echoed by Life University’s new President, Dr. Rob Scott, as well as by administrators, faculty, and staff throughout the University who have committed their support to this program as a reflection of Life University’s vitalistic philosophy and principle of lasting purpose: “to give, to love, to do, and to serve out of abundance.”
With the help of a grant from the Laughing Gull Foundation and the wholehearted support of the Georgia Department of Corrections and staff at Arrendale, Life University became the first college or university based in the state of Georgia to provide a degree program in prison since 1994, when Pell Grants were banned for incarcerated people as part of the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of that year. Life University admitted its first incarcerated students at Arrendale in July 2016, and the first class graduated with their Associate of Arts degree in January 2019. These eleven students graduated with an average cumulative GPA of 3.9, and the second class graduated in January 2020. In January 2020, Life U also began offering a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at Arrendale, and all AA in PHDSC graduates can go on to earn that degree.
Our project’s name, “Chillon,” 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 systemic inequities represented by mass incarceration by transforming the ‘communion’ of those at the center of it all?”
Portrait created by Jesca Cates of the Associate of Arts in PHDSC class of 2019 at Arrendale.
In addition to providing full scholarships, Chillon covers all costs for incarcerated students to participate in the program, textbooks and supplies to all incarcerated students, to full-time administrative support on site at Arrendale. The program is supported by generous grants from the Laughing Gull Foundation and the SunTrust Foundation, but we also rely on private, individual donations.
If you are interested in donating to Chillon, please click the “donate to Chillon” button here:
Any contribution you can make will go directly to supporting high-quality, in-person education for incarcerated students in Georgia.
GACHEP participants, including Life U students, at a GPB screening of College Behind Bars at 7 Stages Atlanta.