BONNE TERRE, Mo. • On a recent morning inside Missouri's largest state prison, a class of students patiently waited for the professor to arrive. They had a pile of books each, and a collective pile of some of society's worst offenses.
Light poured in through windows facing a courtyard that none of them will physically get beyond in a long time. It was here, sitting around a group of tables 50 feet from an execution room, where they freed their minds.
Never mind the gray uniforms, the rattling keys, the chirp of a guard's radio. When St. Louis University professor Stephen Casmier got through security, and the day's lesson in literary studies began, the men were in college.
"I was a bit concerned because I expected the thesis statements to be a little stronger," Casmier, toting a fresh stack of graded papers about Vladimir Nabokov's 1957 novel "Pnin," told his class.
Some of the students had written several drafts, first by hand, then by typewriter. There aren't many computers in prison. Nor are there college degree programs like this one.
The students sighed when Casmier told them they'd have to wait until the end of class to get their papers back. Meanwhile, they had another book to discuss, "White Noise," by Don DeLillo.
The class of 19 inmates, a small sampling of the 30,000 offenders in the Missouri Department of Corrections system, is part of the SLU Prison Program, an effort that educators and prison reformers are watching with hopeful, yet cautious, eyes.
"Too many programs, for the last two or three decades, get brought in and then somebody finds something they don't like about them and they smash it," said Jason Lewis, deputy warden of the Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Correctional Center, as the prison is called in Bonne Terre. "We are moving slowly to get the momentum so we can spread it everywhere, all over the eastern region."
In 2008, SLU started offering certificates in Theology Studies at the prison. In March, it expanded to an associate of arts, a two-year degree that will take the inmates four years to finish.
"We have got to find other ways of dealing with problems in our society besides locking people up," said Kenneth Parker, a SLU theologian who directs the program. "And that means finding more rehabilitative approaches. And that's where I think private nonprofits like SLU have a role to play."
When the initial certificate was offered, the application window closed after five days — more than 300 inmates applied for 15 slots. SLU selected inmates without life sentences and those who tutored or held leadership positions in prison. There is an expectation that they will pass along what they've learned. Program leaders said there haven't been any reports of disciplinary problems in or outside of class.
"We have a lot to lose," said student Jonathan Anderson, 30, who robbed a bank in Florissant. "I want to prove that just because we made a mistake, we aren't criminals forever."
Doug Burris, chief U.S. probation officer for the Eastern District of Missouri, said he hopes the "Bonne Terre model" can expand with the help of a small college in Greenville, Ill., home to St. Louis' closest federal lockup.
"While they are warehoused in a prison, it makes sense to take care of educational opportunities there rather than wait until they get out," he said.
The program, free to inmates, is supported by SLU, a $150,000 grant from the Hearst Foundation and other donations. The private university wouldn't disclose the program costs. SLU has also organized a speakers series at the prison and brought in best-selling authors, jazz musicians and poets. Copies of SLU's student newspaper are set to be available soon in the prison library.
More than 350 college prison programs used to operate across the country, but only a few survived after Pell grants were cut for convicts in the 1990s, according to a report by Bard College in New York, which runs a prison education program.
Politically, the funding was an easy target, but scholars continue to point to studies that show education reduces recidivism — the more educated inmates are, the less likely they are to return to prison. And that can also help with the tax bill. It costs $20,863 a year to house one inmate in a Missouri prison.
"The more the education, the better off they are," said Neil Crispo, a Florida State University professor who has studied education programs in prisons. "We pay for it again if they don't get educated."
George Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, is aware of the benefits of education. He said about 1,500 offenders in Missouri get GEDs each year, and there are several rehabilitative and vocational programs.
But other than the SLU program, a smaller effort with a junior college in northern Missouri that's funded by the U.S. Department of Education, and correspondence courses, college degrees aren't available inside Missouri prisons.
"We are not going to pay tax dollars to do it," Lombardi said. "If someone wants to come in and provide a program, we'll be interested to listen to it."
He requested that the SLU program be available to prison staff, too, and the university obliged.
And although the classes are separate, prisoners and prison staff seem to have similar goals.
"I see it as a great example for my children because I want both of them to go to college, yet I hadn't been to college," said Amy Gibson-Kelly, 33, a former corrections officer who now works as a secretary at the Bonne Terre prison. "How can I say, 'Go, go, go' when I didn't? So now I am doing it."
Inmates such as Courtney Everett, 37, are also grateful for a second chance. He sends his papers home and compares grades with his kids.
"Although we are in prison, we don't have to act like we are in prison," said Everett, serving a 22-year sentence for assault and kidnapping. "It keeps my mind out there, and in the mentality I need it to be when I return to society."
Casmier, the teacher, said the program is the most enjoyable gig of his career. The inmates are often more dedicated than students at SLU's main campus. They have fewer distractions, no Internet access.
Casmier doesn't want to know why his students are in prison. Some of the inmates have only GEDs, but he said he doesn't coddle them. That was apparent at the end of the recent class when he handed back graded papers that analyzed the book "Pnin," about an obscure professor from Russia teaching in America.
Some argued for better grades.
Unsatisfied with a B, Jeff Wooldridge, 52, sentenced to 21 years for child sexual assault, told Casmier that he'd spent 20 hours doing about eight rewrites. But Casmier cut him off, saying the four-page paper lacked a unifying thesis and that Wooldridge relied too heavily on poorly chosen quotations from the text.
"It's a learning process," Wooldridge said in defeat. "You've got some valid points."
Cory Gardner, 33, was another student who was noticeably engrossed in the course material. He was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1997 shooting death of Christopher Masqua, a teenager from Jefferson City.
The victim's brother, Stacy Masqua, said in an interview that Gardner shouldn't get any breaks.
"I don't think he should have any opportunity like that," Masqua said. "Why should he have a life?"
But Lewis, the deputy warden, said judges already gave inmates their punishment.
"They are here to learn to do their time and to learn how to get back into the community and make those transitions once their time has gone by," he said. "As taxpayers, whether we like it or not, 97 percent of them are coming back (into society). How do you want them back?"
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect funding source for a college degree program through a junior college in northern Missouri. This version has been corrected.