To Serve in Your Own Way by Blaze Compton
Inmate # 11273205, Shawn McWeeny, currently serving his eleventh year of a twenty-five year sentence at Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI) south of Salem, Oregon had a vision...and, most importantly, a sincere commitment to that vision. Fifteen years ago, in a spasm of short-sighted conservative legislation, the federal government dissolved all federal higher education grant and loan programs for convicted felons. College programs inside prison walls immediately evaporated, making it impossible for inmates to receive marketable education while incarcerated—even though it is a documented and well known fact that higher education programs inside prisons not only reduce violence within prison itself, but also contribute greatly to lower recidivism rates for parolees.
Shawn McWeeny faced formidable challenges, not the least of which is the palpable miasma of tension and depression that drifts from cell to cell and tends to suck the life out of dreams and ambition before they have the chance to blossom. But Shawn persisted and succeeded. Today, thanks to Shawn, college level courses are offered through Chemeketa Community College to both OSCI and Oregon State Penitentiary. From his efforts Shawn also witnessed another miracle: annual private grant money that seemed to materialize out of nowhere—making it possible for the average inmate to now afford the expensive tuition.
I first met Shawn four years ago when I was asked to put together a Buddhist services program for OSCI. At that first meeting I was impressed with Shawn’s openness, maturity, and his commitment to the essence of Buddhism—interconnectedness. Since that meeting Shawn has continued to impress me with his desire to contribute. It is no real surprise that he was the person who spearheaded Oregon’s College Inside Program. Following are his words.
The College Inside Program by Shawn McWeeny
Sometimes self-service turns into service for others; after a fourteen year layoff college classes returned to Oregon State Correctional Institution in just that way. To my surprise, the College Inside Program began with only a little effort on my part. I was taking correspondence courses and not getting a lot out of them; I had the desire to learn from teachers and peers in a classroom setting. I wanted to see college classes available to the prison population and I knew that others felt the same. The first step was to meet with Nancy Green, a Chemeketa Community College administrator. My intention was to prove to her the significant level of inmate interest in college accredited classes. I provided her with a list of about thirty inmates willing to take classes at the regular cost of $64 per credit hour. Nancy took a chance and the first two terms went well, with Business and Geography being offered. However, with inmates earning, on average, well under $50 per month, a dilemma arose—how long would the classes sustain themselves? The concern was temporarily eased when an anonymous donor contacted Nancy Green making a generous offer to defray the costs of classes for the inmates. His donation made the College Inside Program possible, funding up to eight credit hours per term for sixty inmates over one year (which was recently extended for a second year). Those who meet stringent criteria based on commitment to the program, time left to serve on their sentence, and positive behavior, pay $25 plus the cost of books. The classes that are available to us aim at a two-year degree. This was a great start to something very positive, and the impact of this program has been immense. For many of those fortunate enough to get into the program, this was their first opportunity for higher education. A few, who have the means, continue to pay full tuition in order to obtain the inherent benefits of a college education. The skills obtained in these courses provide the potential for inmates to fulfill something bigger in their lives, supporting their families and communities, and stopping the cycle of incarceration. On a personal level, over the last eighteen months of being involved with this program I have developed a desire to be a writer. Though multi-faceted, this desire is focused on two areas: to express “myself”, and to reach people. I want to approach writing without ego. I want my writing to be without attachments to recognition and money. Having seen the results of wholesome intentions in the fruition of the College Inside Program I am doing my best to practice, as the sages say, “giving up your desires for the fruits of your actions.” Upon contemplating the way things came together for this program, I noticed that the service everyone provided came from a deep and genuine place—the heart. Nancy Green has an awesome compassion for the inmates associated with the program and has added considerably to her caseload in order to see it through. Another inmate, my friend Daniel Ryel, encouraged people and got signatures—even though he is not even taking classes—that’s service. And of course the donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, serves immensely in his decision to provide for a segment of our society that has been, for the most part, discarded. The College Inside Program began and continues to be sustained through the service of individuals working for the collective good. As of now, due to funds, the number of inmates with access to the program is limited. Also, the classes available to inmates hinge on those willing to look past the stigma of prison and get involved with education and rehabilitation. If this program and the positive impact that it is having resonates with you, perhaps you too may use this opportunity to serve in your own way. (NOTE: Because of the amount of time that Shawn has left to serve on his sentence he is ineligible for the tuition grant money that he attracted to this program. Even though this is the case, he continues to do all he can to lobby for continued and increased tuition support for the College Inside Program. His vision is that the privately funded program will expand and become the model for higher education inside all state prisons within Oregon and, eventually, throughout the rest of the nation. Why not? It works. Now, that’s service.) Blaze Compton is from Dayton, Oregon. He facilitates spiritual programs at OSCI and Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution. He needs help and additional volunteers. For more detailed information on how you can contribute to this work please contact him at 503.864.4682 or visit the website www.powerofbeing.info