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SNC Behind Bars

Time is softening the memories Ed Sturzl ’71 has of his years at St. Norbert. But one event he hasn’t forgotten is the time he played basketball with some of the inmates incarcerated at the Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI), then known as the Wisconsin State Reformatory.

Sturzl remembers his fraternity’s basketball team was tapped to play the game. He recalls the shock of having to pass two inspections to get into the facility. Of being surrounded by armed guards. Of watching the rest of the prisoners march in to watch the game. “Now you’re in this building, and there are just 12 of you, and you’re just hoping things don’t get out of hand with the referees or something,” he says. The game was very competitive, but there were no scuffles. Afterward, the students were invited to dine with the players, who Sturzl says were friendly, bright and hospitable. “People who are in a maximum security prison are in there for a long, long period of time,” he says. “You hope people can recover from that and have a better life.”

Prison ministry roots
Ministry to the incarcerated is not an explicit part of St. Norbert College’s mission. And yet since its inception, the college has had innumerable interactions with local prisons and their inmates. Just a few months before the college’s founding in October 1898, the Wisconsin State Reformatory welcomed its first eight inmates. Once the Norbertines arrived, it only seemed natural that one of them should serve as the new reformatory’s chaplain. That chaplaincy tradition continues to this day, with the Rev. Jim Baraniak, O.Praem., ’88 currently in the role.

In the 1960s, and over the next two decades, basketball teams regularly challenged inmates at GBCI. SNC students even joined inmates for classes. MaryBeth Earle Ascher ’71 was one of them. Sometimes inmates were allowed to come to campus for classes, too. “The main thing I remember from the experience is how unremarkable it was,” she says. “I can’t begin to imagine the behind-the-scenes discussion and coordination it must have taken to pull off the whole arrangement. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I ever mentioned it to my parents – not because I was thinking that they would have been aghast (which they surely would have!), but because it seemed so very ordinary.”

More recently, SNC students regularly traveled to GBCI to participate in Challenges & Possibilities, a victim impact program for vetted inmates that included a three-day session on restorative justice led in part by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske. Restorative justice is the concept of bringing together criminals, their victims and community members in order to nudge offenders to accept responsibility for their crimes and make amends. In a twist on the concept, Geske’s sessions brought together unconnected offenders, victims and community members including St. Norbert students. The program also included guest lectures for inmates, aimed at giving them useful skills and knowledge to assist them once released.

Several SNC faculty, staff and students presented sessions over the years, including the Rev. Jim Neilson, O.Praem, ’88 (Art). Neilson was originally asked to give one art history lecture. But the experience was so positive for all involved, he soon was giving monthly lectures to 25 or 30 men. The inmates were vibrant and engaged in their exchange of opinions, he says, and they learned to respectfully listen to someone else’s opinion and speak in non-threatening ways: “The men were so grateful to have the opportunity to actively use their minds and imaginations. And there was never once an incident. Sometimes there was excited emotion, but you see that in the classroom as well. Because good art will elicit strong responses.”

Neilson hopes the program will be resurrected so he can return to the prison. In the meantime, Derek Elkins, SNC’s Protestant chaplain, is noodling over a possible educational program for inmates. Elkins and his wife, Kathleen Gallagher Elkins (Theology & RS), used to live in New Jersey, where Elkins worked with the New Jersey Scholarship & Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP). NJ-STEP assists the state’s corrections department and parole board in providing college courses to inmates. Since his arrival at SNC, Elkins has met with officials at GBCI and the Brown County Jail to discuss the possibility of offering college courses to their inmates. Programs such as these take a lot of time and money to get off the ground. But Elkins isn’t giving up. In fact, he has opened a small consulting firm to support partnerships between colleges and correctional facilities, of which NJ-STEP is a client.

Elkins’ passion for educating inmates stems partly from the fact that studies show those who take even one college course have a huge drop in recidivism. Yes, these programs cost money. “But we’re putting money into helping people foster positive personal identities,” he says, “as well as giving them the opportunity to make positive investments in the community.”

Beyond prison walls
Not all of the college’s involvement with the incarcerated involves traveling to GBCI. Cheryl Carpenter (Sociology) has been teaching Corrections in American Society for the last several years. The course looks at corrections systems and strategies in the United States, then analyzes whether they provide just punishments – and if those punishments effectively protect citizens.

Carpenter says students typically don’t know that much about U.S. corrections systems before taking her class, and are very interested in becoming informed. The class is especially relevant today, as the country’s corrections systems are being scrutinized. “We have a lot of people incarcerated in America compared to other developed countries,” she says, “and some people believe it’s not reducing our crime. It hasn’t really addressed the problems.”

Stephanie Birmingham ’09 agrees with this assessment. A political science major with a peace and justice minor, she participated in one of Geske’s Challenges & Possibilities sessions as a community member there to witness and learn. Birmingham later returned to the prison to lead inmates in a session on relaxation and meditation. Then, after graduation, she worked 18 months with the Norbertine Volunteer Community (NVC). NVC members live and work in a diverse, economically challenged area of Green Bay, where they serve nonprofit agencies and educational programs. One of Birmingham’s assignments was to help the Brown County Jail chaplain with programming.

She saw many people with mental health issues, and the huge need for corresponding services. She noted that substance abuse was the root cause of many people’s crimes. And she was particularly pained by the spiraling effect of incarceration – how it adversely affected inmates’ families, finances and everyone’s future: “People end up in jail for so many different reasons, and in my experience there were very, very few people who needed to have their freedom limited for their own betterment and that of the community. Let’s look at how we’re holding people responsible [for their crimes], and then what we’re doing to ameliorate the ripple effects of incarceration so we’re not setting up future generations to go down that same path.”

Ellen Mommaerts ’11 (M.T.S.), director of the NVC, has been involved with Brown County prison ministry for nearly 20 years. She says, “On a college campus where we talk about service, leadership, compassion and community, it’s not surprising that conversations take place [about corrections], which then move to action. More than once I’ve felt in the middle, where I knew the young person in jail and the people they had offended. As a representative of the Catholic Church, I can’t make a judgment that the person not arrested deserves my time and attention more than the person arrested. I’m called as a representative of Christ to reach out to everyone equally. That is really hard to do ... But it has taught me the importance of seeing the person behind the situation.”

There are so many connections between SNC, local prisons and the topic of corrections, perhaps prison ministry should be added to the college’s mission statement. But Neilson says that’s unnecessary. “Prison ministry is implicit in the mission statement of St. Norbert in as much as we recognize that to visit the prisoner is a corporal act of mercy.” Elkins agrees, “I think the college will continue to celebrate that work, and ... I’m confident that members of the St. Norbert community will continue to look for opportunities to support the people at the jail and prison in Green Bay.” 

July 1, 2017