The Chillon Project 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 convey caution regarding the environments that 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 there be a way for us to help change the calculus of the American prison environment by altering the ‘communion’ of those at the center of it all?”
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.
In 2012 CBS News reported the per capita costs of incarceration, depending upon the state involved, as 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 terms of financial cost 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 unfulfilment of human potential dwarfs the financial losses involved.
The Chillon Project is an undertaking of Life University’s Center for Compassion, Integrity and Secular Ethics (CCISE) together with the Georgia State Department of Corrections (GDC) to introduce full Associate’s and Bachelor’s degree programs in Georgia’s correctional facilities. This will be the first full degree program to be offered by a college or university based in the state of Georgia, and one of the few such programs in the entire Southeast. Another highly innovative feature of the project is that it will include scholarships for correctional officers employed by GDC to also have access to higher education.
Education is the single most important factor to be associated with recidivism. Most states have recidivism rates of around 30-40% within three years of re-entry. By contrast, an Associate’s and Bachelor’s degree program at Marymount University in New York has seen only one Bachelor’s student recidivate out of 63 since the start of the program.
Yet recidivism and financial costs are not the prime motivation for CCISE’s creation of the Chillon Project: we believe that all human beings have an innate capacity to benefit others, and therefore deserve the respect and educational opportunities that can help them achieve their highest potential.
We are grateful to the Georgia Department of Corrections and the numerous experts who have consulted with us as we prepare to launch this project with our pilot group of students in January 2016.