The very concept of prison, by its nature, tends to invoke some of the most negative responses – fear, despair, finality and even oppression. However, thanks to programs offered by Barton Community College, one of the least expected of human emotions shines through – hope.
Almost 90 inmates at Ellsworth Correctional Facility were recognized for reaching milestones in their educations Oct. 30 in the prison’s Spiritual Life Center, more than 70 of which took their courses through Barton’s Building Academic Skills In Correctional Settings (BASICS) program.
Some were awarded a GED or recognized for achieving Work Ready status as recognized by the state of Kansas. Others took the next step and earned certificates in a trade, like welding, computers or manufacturing skills.
All of these opportunities are afforded to inmates thanks to grant funding and the drive of several Barton employees and administrators, like Dean of Workforce Training and Community Education Elaine Simmons, who helped start the program several years ago.
After sharing an anecdote about an employer seeking the very skills Barton is providing, Simmons addressed the inmates with encouraging words that they’re on the right track.
“This is real,” she said. “There are jobs waiting for you!”
Former inmate Jason Legg earned a degree in general studies with a business emphasis, and he is a walking testament to the programs’ relevance to real-world needs. After his release, Legg landed a job as the foreman at a construction company in Wichita and is now a productive member of society.
“Barton is a great school and the teachers were wonderful, understanding and helpful,” he said. “All I have to say are good things about the people. They are some of the few who are actually trying to help inmates improve themselves.”
Cindy Villarreal with Kansas Workforce One gave the closing comments during the commencement ceremony. She led with an inspirational clip that named several famous or successful individuals who faced severe criticism early in their lives or careers.
“Don’t listen to people who say you can’t do something,” she said bluntly. “That message is something near and dear to my heart. Yes, you made a mistake. I don’t know what you did to get here, but the focus is on what you do now, while you are here.”
As she continued with the well-received motivational speech, inmate Cory Elkins watched with a smile, having just received his 18-hour certificate focusing on business and excited for his future back in society.
“I was a tattoo artist before,” he said, adding he plans to return to the trade and once again open his own parlor, but this time with a new understanding and powerful business tools. “If I had known what I have learned in the last two years, I could have been a lot more successful.
“And Barton was awesome,” he continued. “I retained all the information really well.”
As time wears on and the inmates taking advantage of Barton’s offerings make progress toward their degrees or certificates, and are eventually released, they would do well to keep Barton President Dr. Carl Heilman’s words at the forefront of their minds.
“You might not have made the right decisions in the past, but you’re here now to invest in your future,” he said. “It was a collaboration of many individuals and organizations coming together, believing in you, to make this happen. Now, you have to believe in yourselves. What are your next steps in life? Where are you going to go? You’re on the right path now. Keep it up.”