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Chillon Project


The Chillon Project at Life University

The Chillon Project is an initiative of the Center for Compassion, Integrity, and Secular Ethics to provide higher education to people impacted by the prison system in Georgia. Life University offers two degree programs at Arrendale State Prison, a maximum-security facility for women in Alto, Georgia: an Associate of Arts in Positive Human Development and Social Change, and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. Students in these programs who are released from prison continue to receive scholarships to complete degrees of their choice at the main campus of Life University or through distance education. Chillon also provides full scholarships for correctional staff to earn degrees at Life University.

 

“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

Mission

The Chillon Project at Life University provides credit-bearing classes and degrees to people in prison and formerly incarcerated people in Georgia; creates learning communities 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, no matter where they are.

Life University’s Degree Programs at Arrendale State Prison

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The degree programs offered at Arrendale aim 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. Courses offered in these programs are also offered at the main campus of Life University and degrees are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

The Associate of Arts in Positive Human Development and Social Change provides an interdisciplinary liberal arts education. Alongside traditional courses such as English Composition, College Algebra, or Biology, the curriculum includes Creativity and the Artful Life, Environmental Ethics, Conflict Transformation, Compassion and Secular Ethics, Identity and Otherness, Spiritual Autobiography, and other courses that build creativity, ethical reflection, effective communication, and critical analysis.

In the Bachelor of Science in Psychology, students take classes ranging from Research Methods in Psychology and Statistics to Advanced Conflict Transformation and the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.  To earn the degree, students complete an original research project under the advisorship of University faculty.

All students in the program complete Compassionate Integrity Training, a multi-part training program that covers a range of skills from self-regulation and self-compassion to compassion for others and engagement with complex systems, building towards compassionate integrity: the ability to live one’s life in accordance with one’s values with a recognition of our common humanity and interdependence. Students who wish to do so can be trained as CIT facilitators, and students in Chillon have gone on to facilitate the training for other people in prison as well as for trainees around the world.

“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.”

–Jasmiyah Whitehead, AA in PHDSC class of 2019

Why Provide Higher Education in Prison?

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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

History of the Chillon Project

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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?”

Supporting Chillon

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 people in prison in Georgia. Contributions help us pay for supplies, faculty, and staff for the program.

The Georgia Coalition on Higher Education and Prisons (GACHEP)

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Chillon is part of a coalition of people and programs in Georgia dedicated to empowering incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in the state to pursue higher education. GACHEP is co-led by people directly impacted by the prison system and representatives of higher education in prison programs. To learn more about the coalition, visit www.gachep.org.

The coalition also includes the following programs that provide higher education in Georgia State Prisons:

Common Good Atlanta

The Georgia State University Prison Education Project 

Unlocked Minds (RestoreHER & Spelman College) 

The Certificate in Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology 

Inside-Out at UGA

Inside-Out at Berry College

Chillon Project Staff

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Thomas “Tom” Flores, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor and AA in PHDSC Faculty Coordinator

Tom holds a PhD from Emory University in Religious Studies, with a concentration in Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding. He was heavily involved with Emory’s Initiative in Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding as its first Post-doctoral Fellow, then Visiting Professor of Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation Practices, and later its Director of External Relations and Program Coordinator. His research interests integrate religion, peace studies and conflict transformation, expressive arts, psychologies of violence, altruism and enemy construction, inter-religious dialogue, international Museums for Peace, and peace building contemplative practices.

Stephanie Sears, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Psychology and BS in Psychology Faculty Coordinator

Nora Bonner, Ph.D.

Program Coordinator

Nora Bonner serves as a program coordinator in the Chillon Project at Lee Arrendale State Prison, where she also teaches writing and literature for the AA in Positive Human Development and Social Change. She recently completed a PhD in Creative writing from Georgia State University. She also has an MFA from Florida State. Her fiction has been published in several literary journals and anthologies, including Third Coast, Hobart, the North American Review, Shenandoah, and the Best American Non-Required reading. When she’s not teaching or writing, Nora is also involved in the expansion of the Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prison.

Kareemah Hanifa

Chillon Reentry and Advocacy Leader

  Kareemah Hanifa is a Muslim native of Charleston, South Carolina though she has spent the majority of her life in the State of Georgia. Kareemah comes from a large blended family of 16 siblings. She recently received her Associates in Positive Human Development and Social Change and is currently working on her Bachelors  in Psychology at Life University in Marietta, Georgia. She is a licensed Master Cosmetologist and a youth advocate. Kareemah is also a Criminal Justice Reform advocate and Reentry Consultant. Kareemah is a ToastMasters Gavel Club member. In 2010 she was invited to speak at Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice forums. She has since been invited to speak at her Candler School of Theology Certificate Graduation, Faith and Character Graduations, and Ending Mass Incarceration 3-day workshop at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. She spoke in Augusta Georgia at the Georgia Department of Corrections Education Forum. Her most prestigious speaking engagement was at TedxDecatur at Emory University 2019, Atlanta, Georgia.  Kareemah is a Conflict Resolution leader and a Peace Studies Negotiator. She has completed and taught C.I.T. training(Compassion and Integrity Training) at Arrendale State Prison. She is a Life Skills Coach and taught her framework JOAT at Purpose Built Schools Atlanta during Spring Semester 2020. On September 7, 2020 she began co-hosting ‘Returning Citizens for Returning Citizens’, a nation-wide podcast addressing issues involving re-entry in America. Kareemah is currently employed as Community Organizer for IMANAtlanta where she is leading the campaign, “No Taxation Without Representation ”.

Thomas Fabisiak, Ph.D.

Director of the Chillon Project

Thomas Fabisiak serves as Director of the Chillon Project. He began teaching at Arrendale State Prison in 2012 through Emory University’s Certificate in Theological Studies (CTS) program. Fabisiak co-directed CTS, which provides non-credit classes in theology and religious studies, from 2015-2016 while working with other members of CCISE to launch the Chillon Project. After Arrendale was designated as a site of Life University in 2016 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Fabisiak began coordinating Chillon before taking over as its Director. Fabisiak completed his Ph.D. in Religious Studies at Emory in 2014 and has published work on secularism and modernity, ethics, and higher education in prison. He is currently leading a study on moral injury among correctional staff. He is a founding member and Co-Executive Director of the Georgia Coalition for Higher Education in Prison.

Affiliated Life University Faculty

Stephanie Sears, Ph.D.

Bachelor of Science in Psychology Faculty Coordinator

Compassion and Secular Ethics, Creativity and the Artful Life, Psychology of Religion, Psychology of Motivation and Emotion, Psychology of Excellence, Careers in Psychology

Thomas Flores, Ph.D.

Associate of Arts in Positive Human Development and Social Change Faculty Coordinator

Conflict Transformation I & II; Introduction to Peace Studies; Creativity and the Artful Life; Compassion and Secular Ethics; Ethical and Moral Reasoning; Spirituality, Integrity, and Transformational Leadership

Peggy Samples, Ph.D.

Chillon Research and Evaluation Team

General Psychology, Life Span Development Psychology, Social Psychology, Positive Psychology, Life Coaching

Nora Bonner, PhD.

Program Coordinator

English Composition I & II, Identity and Otherness

Michael Karlin, Ph.D.

CCISE Associate Director

Spiritual Autobiography, Compassionate Integrity Training

Thomas Fabisiak

Chillon Project Director

Ethical and Moral Reasoning, Secular and Environmental Ethics

Marie Powell

Introduction to Positive Business

Henry Hammond

Elementary Algebra, Intermediate Algebra, College Algebra, Introduction to Statistics

Stacy Bell McQuaide

English Composition I & II, Novels of social Change

Mitchell Ferguson, Ed.D.

General Psychology

Adaris Mas Rivera, Ph.D.

Secular and Environmental Ethics

Kathryn Bruce, Ph.D.

General Biology

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