Article in the Fluvanna Review, 30 January 2012
Billionaire philanthropist Doris Buffett may soon be a major financial contributor to efforts by Piedmont Virginia Community College to help educate Fluvanna women inmates.
“Being the daughter and the sister of people who are good at investing money, I look at it in the same way, it’s investing in lives,” said Buffett, who recently visited the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.
Starting in the fall, Piedmont will offer classes at the Fluvanna prison for those inmates who need to complete an associate degree.
But the efforts from PVCC to educate offenders are by no means a “hand out,” social program or increase in government spending – they are paid for by The Sunshine Lady Foundation, a charity created by Doris Buffett, a resident of Fredricksburg and sister of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
The Buffetts are children of the late Howard Homan Buffett an Omaha, Nebraska businessman, investor, and four-term Republican United States Representative.
According to the Sunshine Lady Foundation website, Buffett created her charity in 1996, shortly after inheriting the money, and has given away over $100 million thus far.
She’s not just paying to educate Fluvanna offenders either; she’s paying for the education of offenders at six correctional facilities in Virginia, and across the country “from Sing Sing to San Quentin.”
But her recent visit to Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women was unique. The spritely 84-year-old sat down and listened to the stories of female inmates.
“I had never been to a women’s prison before. It was a totally different experience for me. The women, they went right to my heart,” said Doris Buffett. “If you believe in redemption, you can see it in them.”
“It’s easy to say ‘no one cares about me’ when you’re incarcerated,” said Phyllis Baskerville, FCCW’s warden. “Ms. Buffett came and met [them]. She heard their stories, and was touched.”
The numbers speak for themselves. At Sing Sing, one of the nation’s most notorious prisons, 196 inmates have received degrees. 41 have been released. Only one has returned.
Buffett first got involved in education for offenders by attending a Sing Sing graduation in June of 2010.
“I was just amazed at what happened in that room,” said Buffett. “You went into that room one person and you came out another. I had never experienced redemption before that day. They’re really trying to be good people. It’s not 100 percent by any means, but as the warden of Sing Sing said, ‘all the men in here have one thing in common, they had a miserable childhood and they’re almost always in here on some drug-related charge.’”
Although The Sunshine Lady Foundation had been doing substantial charitable work before, Buffett used the experience at Sing Sing to propel her into the world of prisoner education.
“How do you want them to come home?” said Buffett. “Do you want them to come home with tricky old things they’ve learned from old-timers? Or with a degree? They will be tax payers, and they’ll be able to take care of their families. It’s very pragmatic and practical. I want to do the most with the money that I can.”
Educating offenders not only makes their lives more rewarding when they’re released, but also makes the prison environment more livable for all involved, both inmates and prison employees.
“When people are sitting around a table with their heads together, they’re no longer planning how to get out, they’re studying,” joked Buffett.
“They have increased self-esteem and a sense of awareness of where they stand in the world. They have tools, equipment, a portfolio, skills – the only thing that can hold them back will be themselves,” said David Wright, the principal of the school at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.
However, lingering in the back of the mind of even the most forgiving person may be this question, “Why should they have their college degree paid for and I didn’t? I didn’t commit a crime.”
Buffett is unperturbed by such questions.
“Once in a while we get a critic, but I say, ‘The taxpayers aren’t paying for this, I am. It isn’t coming out of your pocket, so don’t worry about it,’” said Buffett. “In some cases we open the classes up to the guards, or scholarship to the guards’ children, just so everybody is happy.”
While PVCC has offered classes at the women’s prison since 2004, and 36 inmates are currently enrolled in eight classes ranging from English composition to statistics, not until now have inmates been able to complete a degree.
“The mission of the community college is to provide educational opportunities to the residents and the people who reside in our service region. As far as we’re concerned, inmates are part of that,” said John Donnelly, PVCC’s vice-president for Instruction and Student Services.
Donnelly and his staff are hoping for five Fluvanna inmates to graduate with an associate of science degree in general studies in the spring of 2013. School principal Wright has a much more optimistic goal of 30 graduates.
“It’s a transfer degree,” said John Donnelly. “It’s intended to be the first two years of a baccalaureate degree. It gives them a credential and prepares them to go to any four-year institution.”
In general, offenders who are accepted to college programs do very well academically, with few distractions to pull them away from schoolwork.
“I’ve had many letters from professors, they’re ready to quit their day jobs because these people are eager to learn. With that kind of motivation, they can’t miss,” said Buffett.
The University of Virginia offers a bachelor program at Dillwyn Correctional Center, but not at Fluvanna. Wright is currently reaching out to them, and Buffett is willing to fund it if it happens.
“We are the only institution in Virginia where she has made a commitment to see them through to a bachelors’ degree. That’s pens, paper, computers, calculators – whatever it takes to receive that degree,” said Baskerville.
Teaching college in a prison
In order for PVCC to offer degrees at the Fluvanna prison, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) had to grant PVCC a special accreditation by visiting the prison.
“They want to make sure that the courses we offer towards a degree and all of the support services that go along with it are comparable at the site as they are here on campus,” said Donnelly of SACS.
A few potential barriers to granting the degrees include PVCC’s requirement of eight credits in a lab-based science course, as well as an Internet proficiency requirement. PVCC and FCCW are in the midst of trying to figure out how to provide these requirements to inmates when there is a strict \no Internet policy for prisons across the state, and science laboratories in prisons are unheard of.
“They have almost anything else, great classroom facilities and computer facilities, but they don’t have a lab,” said Donnelly. “So the challenge is to provide a comparable laboratory science course. We want them to be doing the exact same thing as they would be doing if they weren’t incarcerated.”
Donnelly and Wright are looking into ways of doing that, including computer-based simulations and physical laboratory kits that can be brought into the facility, but both would have to be approved by the Department of Corrections.
“It’s not an issue of not being allowed, it’s accountability once it’s entered the secured area,” said Wright. “They have to account for every tool through a check system so even if we issue a scalpel, we know that this person has this instrument, and then we expect that instrument to come back.”
“Even faculty are searched and the possessions that they bring into the facility are searched as well. For example, paper clips. You can’t bring metal paperclips into the facility, but you can bring staples in. They have certain things based on safety issues that they will allow or won’t allow. It’s a security issue, more than anything. They don’t want things coming in that can be used as weapons,” said Donnelly.
Though very rich, Doris Buffett has informed us (the Fluvanna Review) she is not a billionaire.