Ginnie Graham: Volunteer's work helps inmates get college education
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
11/14/12 at 2:43 AM
Suzanne Edmondson has helped hundreds of inmates at the Eddie Warrior women's prison go to college.
Some may take just a class or two, but others have gone on to get associate's and bachelor's degrees.
One became an attorney specializing in immigration law.
"I'm one little piece of this huge pie," Edmondson said. "I'm not out to change the world, but I'm doing what I think must be done."
Since 1996, the Friends of Eddie Warrior nonprofit organization, which she founded, has paid $221,000 in college costs for inmates.
Currently, 36 women are funded by the organization to take classes.
"Self-esteem is a huge problem for them," Edmondson said of the inmates. "When they find they can successfully complete a single college class, it can literally be life-changing. It is something they never thought they could do."
Personal experience: Edmondson, the wife of Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice James Edmondson, was drawn to this work for personal reasons.
Her daughter, Sarah Edmondson, pleaded guilty to three felonies in Louisiana for her part in a deadly 1995 multistate crime spree, which gained national attention. She served more than 11 years in a Louisiana prison and is now on parole. Her then-boyfriend is serving a life sentence for a murder conviction.
"I'm most proud of myself for getting out from under the bed and was determined to do something good from it," Suzanne Edmondson said. "I could do nothing for her in Louisiana, but I could do something in Oklahoma."
So Edmondson set out to understand more about what prisoners need for rehabilitation.
She stepped into this unknown world by becoming a literacy instructor, working directly with inmates.
She does not just write checks. She's a mentor and friend to those in and now out of prison.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections offers literacy classes and a GED program. Beyond that, inmates must pay for college courses, and few can afford it.
"College was a huge need. It lowers recidivism so greatly," Edmondson said.
Generational problem: Oklahoma likes to be tough on crime.
It's been particularly tough on women, with the state holding the No. 1 U.S. ranking for female incarceration.
Officials now recognize that a high rate of addiction and intergenerational poverty go hand-in-hand with crime.
This is old news to Edmondson.
"I've seen a lot of undereducated women in poverty who get into drugs and may have tried to make a buck with drugs," she said. "I've known mothers and daughters in prison. Most families send their kids to college, and in other families kids go to jail for a while."
An obstacle for prison programs is a lack of services and short sentences leading to release before finishing a course.
"I'm giving them what I can before they get out," Edmondson said. "She (a released inmate) will go back with a different view of things, and more education never hurts."
Opportunities: Edmondson, 67, says she is slowing down now but volunteers in a shelter for homeless women.
"These are the same women as the women at Eddie Warrior, with the same issues," she said.
Edmondson's happy ending is that she remains close with her daughter, who was released on parole two years ago. Sarah Edmondson is under the supervision of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, has a job, and is continuing her education.
These are the opportunities Edmondson has been fighting to gain for all Oklahoma female inmates.
"I am a volunteer because I believe in it so much," she said.
Original Print Headline: Volunteer's work helps inmates go to college
Suzanne Edmondson: She founded the Friends of Eddie Warrior nonprofit organization, which provides funding for the female prison's inmates to take college classes.