November 5, 2018
Story and photos by Brandon Steinert
Jason Schaffer was incarcerated at age 16, and hasn’t known freedom for the last 25 years. His first chance at leaving is a parole opportunity still more than a decade away. Until then, he has plenty of time, and he has a choice about how to view his past, use his present and approach his future. His focus has been education, and he graduated with an associate degree in general studies from Barton Community College on Thursday night at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility Learning Celebration.
“I’ve been in prison my whole life; I didn’t know anything about the world when I started taking classes in the facility,” he said. “I had failed sixth grade twice, which is when I started getting locked up, so I came here with a fifth grade education. When I got here, I got curious and found out that I like to learn.”
Schaffer learned to weld and landed a welding job, then used the income to pay for earning his high school diploma through the GED exam while he was incarcerated at El Dorado Correctional Facility. Transferring to ECF opened up new possibilities through Barton, of which he took full advantage. He earned several industry certificates before finishing his associate degree, which was attained with highest honors, holding onto a 4.0 grade-point average.
Schaffer is determined to earn a bachelor’s degree through correspondence education, then a Master’s in Business Administration.
“I want to be employable and do more than just weld. I want options and more than one field open to me when I parole,” he said. “If it weren’t for these classes, I wouldn’t know how to use a phone or turn on a computer. Learning keeps me going. I have 12 (years) left on a 38 (year sentence). I’m going to make every minute of this sentence count so I can feel like I did my time as a man. I want to know I squeezed as much juice out of this time as possible.”
Schaffer was joined by three other inmates who received their associate degrees that evening, along with more than 130 others receiving industry certificates and high school diplomas.
One anonymous inmate, who also received his associate degree Thursday, was incarcerated in 2011 and his release date is still up in the air. He has, as a veteran, been able to use financial aid from the military to pursue his education. Like Schaffer, he has elected to chase a bachelor’s degree next.
“I just want to push myself; the best way to do time is to keep busy, so I volunteer for the Jaycees and help in the Spiritual Life Center,” he said. “I want to be a man of character and show my family, my kids, that it’s not the environment that defines who you are, it’s your core beliefs.”
The four inmates who earned associate degrees had diverse backgrounds and approaches to their educations, but they shared at least one common sentiment: gratitude for the symbol of hope they held in their hands at the end of the night, and more notably for the people who made it possible. Several names were mentioned but the one whose praise seemed to be a recurring theme was Nicole Serpan, Career Advisor for Barton’s Building Academic Skills in Correctional Settings (BASICS) program, who started in the summer of 2016.
“When she got here, she changed the whole dynamic,” said the inmate who will remain anonymous. “She helped me figure out Veterans’ Assistance, which is huge. She sought out training and jumped through lots of hoops and made it happen.”
Schaffer also sang Serpan’s praises and credited Barton’s services overall for making possible a brighter future.
“I just have nothing but gratitude to express to the administration of the college; to the great teachers who come here into prison and spend their time with us,” Schaffer said. “And Nicole, she found the classes we needed and made sure we had access.”
After the fanfare of crossing the stage to shake hands and receive certificates, diplomas and degrees, the inmates heard from Executive Director of Intuitional Advancement Coleen Cape, who oversees the Barton Foundation. She recognized 14 inmates who received scholarships for the spring and fall of 2018.
Administrators at both Barton and ECF shared a few words to close the celebration. The thoughtful speeches were laden with themes of hope, persistence, forgiveness and gratitude.
Barton President Dr. Carl Heilman encouraged the inmates to frequently take moments to be introspective, and contemplate their purpose.
“You allow me, and those who provide instruction who supported you, to provide a service. You know what that service does? It provides us a purpose,” he said. “You are getting your education, and you’re learning and training and doing the book work: math, science, what have you, but you’re learning a lot more. You’re learning about yourself; you’re learning things about yourself that may not have been given consideration before. You’re looking at things in life that you thought were important before, but perhaps not anymore.
“Our wish is that you learn something you’re going to give to someone else, and you’re going to give them a step up. And you’re going to find that purpose, and it’s going to drive you. It’s going to make you a better person.”
Dr. Heilman’s speech was greeted by an emotional standing ovation.
Distinguished Instructor Award recipient and Instructor of English at Barton told the inmates that every passing moment is an opportunity to make a choice that will set a foundation for the future.
“Our past choices have led each of us to our present station in life, regardless of where that might be,” she said. “What we have to remember is that our past mistakes do not define us or what we’re capable of from this point forward. Each of us have made mistakes. Each of us has regrets. Each of us has a past; but we have no control over changing any of that. Our control lies in what we choose do with our present and ultimately our future. I believe education has the ability to mold people into something better than they were originally. I believe that no one’s future is predetermined by circumstances.
“We choose how our story will end.”
For more information about Barton’s BASICS program and how inmate education impacts society and the economy by reducing crime and recidivism, visit bartonccc.edu/breakthecycle.