A ninth-grade dropout. Unable to write. Incarcerated.
These terms described Francisco before he began the College Inside program at Oregon State Penitentiary. Now, almost 60 credits into an associate’s degree from Chemeketa Community College with a straight-A average, Francisco has changed more than his education.
“All I thought about was myself and how I can survive,” Francisco said. “Now I think about how I can give back. Guys are leaving this program with that in mind.”
And thanks to a recent $142,598 contribution from an organization headed by member one the world’s most well-known philanthropic families, Francisco and other College Inside students have an opportunity to finish what they started after the program recently lost its primary donor.
The contribution from the Sunshine Lady Foundation headed by Doris Buffett, sister of Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett, is a large portion of the $179,000 needed to ensure the 37 students in the program will be able to complete their degrees.
“It feels exciting and hopeful for the students to have this opportunity,” said Nancy Green, Chemeketa’s executive director of corrections education. “We were faced with having to discontinue this program a month from now, and it is great to be making different plans now.”
College Inside began in 2007, with the bulk of the program’s funding coming from a single private donor who wished to remain anonymous. The program allows incarcerated students at Oregon State Penitentiary and the Oregon State Correction Institution, both in Salem, to take courses from Chemeketa instructors and ultimately receive a Chemeketa degree.
However, the donor notified program officials that the funding is ending in December. That began the scramble to find new funding sources. Then came word of the Sunshine Lady Foundation donation.
“I was doing the happy dance in my office after finding out the Sunshine Lady Foundation was giving us most of the money needed for the current students to graduate,” said Michele Dishong McCormack, chair of Chemeketa’s communication and performing arts program and a College Inside instructor. “This also gives our fundraising efforts some much-needed breathing room and time to get out of triage mode as we move forward.”
The donation has also allowed for a chance of hope not just to get the money to allow not just the current students to complete, but to keep the program going.
Proponents of College Inside like Dishong McCormack and Green point not just to the personal growth of students who receive their degree while incarcerated, but to the benefit to all Oregonians. Of students who have received degrees through Chemeketa’s College Inside program, the rate of recidivism, or returning back to prison, is less than 3 percent. The recidivism rate of all inmates in the state of Oregon is more than 26 percent.
The low recidivism rate also has cost savings associated with it. The cost to house one inmate for one year in Oregon is $31,025. The cost to provide an inmate with the courses for an associate’s degree over three years with College Inside is $8,700.
Dishong McCormack also notes inmates work 40 hours per week as required by state law in addition to taking their classes, inmates contribute toward their class costs and the average GPA of a College Inside student is 3.82.
While the Sunshine Lady Foundation donation covers a large chunk of the needed funding, there is still work to be done to find the additional funding needed. But those involved with College Inside now have more time to locate those funds or also keep the program ongoing.
“We have government officials, private citizens, current and former students and others who are offering help to find new funding sources,” Dishong McCormack said. “I’m confident we will find the money needed to continue this amazing program.”
For students currently inside the program like Francisco, there is relief that he, like 36 other students, still has a chance to complete his degree. He looks forward to the pride he will bring his family when they see him graduate and hopes once he is released to find work in human resources or be an art-related entrepreneur.
“I would say thank you (to Ms. Buffett) from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “Thank you for the sunshine that you have brought into a place that is lacking in hope and opportunity.”
For Green, stories like Francisco’s are the motivation to find the means to keep the program ongoing beyond the current group of students.
“The success of this program continues to be very clear,” she said. “This program is changing the lives of the students and their families, along with making our communities safer. I am confident that we will find a way to continue this important work.”