On the evening of Sept 19, 2022, Charlie Luckett, Brandon Allen and others from Oklahoma Christian University loaded up their film equipment and left to interview the women incarcerated at the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Oklahoma.
“Right now, Oklahoma Christian is taking part in a program called the HOPE Institute where they’re providing an associate degree and courses to students inside Mabel Bassett to give them a better shot (when they get out),” Allen said.
The HOPE Institute, which stands for Helping Oklahoma through Prison Education, was founded in 2021 by Oklahoma Christian’s Chief Academic Officer Jeff McCormack on the premise of Christian mission.
“I think it’s really important to look at our mission as a Christian university. From a Biblical standpoint, we are called to go into the prisons. Jesus said, ‘When you were helping me, I was in prison,’” McCormack said, referring to Matthew 25:36-40.
The HOPE Institute itself hopes to rehabilitate the women upon release.
“A lot of times, when they leave prison, they struggle to get back into society because all employers see is a felony charge on their record,” Luckett said. “Now, they can come out and say, ‘Hey, yes, I have a felony charge, but while I was there, I got a college education. Now, I know how to run a business or do these things. I’ve shown how I worked hard to better my life.’”
Some of them have plans to continue their education upon release, to build tiny homes, be a dog trainer and more.
“For some of them, you can truly tell it’s changed their life,” Luckett said. “If they didn’t have a bright orange shirt on, and they weren’t in the middle of a prison, you wouldn’t know they were any different.”
Being treated as such is something they were grateful for.
“We asked almost every one of them, ‘What do you think about your professors?,’” Luckett said. “They are so grateful their professors treat them as if they’re any other college student, and the fact they are wearing orange makes no difference in how they’re taught.”
How much they value their education was also evident in the interviews.
“We almost had to stop them from talking because, obviously, we’re on the clock,” Luckett said. They tried to limit each of the 20 interviews to just five minutes, “but they just wanted to keep telling what this meant to them.”
Their gratitude was also reflected in their day-to-day dedication.
“They only get so long on the computer. So, if they haven’t done their research and paperwork before they get on the computer, they can’t make their homework deadline by the next time,” Luckett said. “A lot [of them] will hand-write their entire paper to make sure it’s perfect beforehand. A lot of them dedicate entire afternoons just to getting school done, whereas when you look at the average college kid, we complain if we have to dedicate one hour of our life.”
Some of the students, however, have dedicated much more than that.
“One lady there fought for over a decade just to receive funding and scholarships to get into the program,” Luckett said. “A few of them were brought to tears by how much this meant to them. And to see that takes it to a whole new perspective of how much we’re privileged to be able to do college every day.”
Luckett also mentioned one student who didn’t let a life sentence stop her from fighting for the scholarships and funding necessary to get her spot in the program.
“A lot of people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and this really showed because these people, they’re still people,” Allen said.
Going forward, they hope to interview the Oklahoma Christian professors involved with the HOPE Institute. More information can be found here.