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Cornell Prison Education Program gives Auburn inmates new hope

Editor’s Note: This story was written by and republished with the permission of Just Ithaca, a magazine produced by the students of the Advanced Multimedia Journalism class at the Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College.

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Sally McConnel-Ginet, Professor Emerita in Linguistics, hugs a member of the Class of 2012 at the Graduation Commencement of the Cornell Prison Education Program.

For many modern-day high school students, graduating with a college-level degree is simply the next logical step in life; but for the 15 students of Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP) who will graduate on Dec. 10, it means a better chance at a jail-free future.

CPEP is one of at least eight college-level prison education programs in prisons in New York State that grant degrees to inmates. In March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to fund and launch 10 more in-state programs following a 2013 study that shows participation in inmate education programs reduced recidivism – to re-offend and return to prison after being released – by 43 percent.

“It’s really scary the rate at which prisoners who are released end up back in prison,” Tom Owens, faculty director for CPEP, said. “That tells us that we’re not doing something as well as we should.”

The study, funded by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, found that of the approximately 700,000 individuals released yearly from federal and state prisons, about 67 percent will be reincarcerated, and about half of them within three years.

Cuomo said this is the motivation behind funding the programs, which will cost about $5,000 yearly per inmate, compared to the $60,000 yearly cost for housing a prisoner.

“That caused a lot of negative responses from people sort of saying, ‘why should we give money for prisoner education when my son or daughter can’t go to college because we can’t afford it and there’s not enough aid for tuition,’” Owens said. “That’s a very real concern on people’s part, but at the same time, programs like CPEP have a significant effect on our students both in prison and after they are released in prison.”

CPEP offers about 18 different courses each semester that inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility — a maximum security prison — can take to earn an associate’s degree in partnership with Cayuga Community College. Courses are taught by Cornell University faculty and other local professors, post doctorates and graduate students, and span liberal arts subjects like philosophy, law, history and science.

Rachel Harmon, a senior Cornell student and recent Rhodes Scholarship recipient, has been volunteering with CPEP for 2.5 years as an undergraduate teaching assistant in English and writing courses. She said her involvement has both shaped her college learning experience and her public policy studies.

“We have this idea that once you go into prison, you get out, and the idea is that you don’t commit the same crimes,” Harmon said. “But if you’re less able to take care of yourself and your family, it doesn’t work like that. So I think to make our criminal justice system work the way it’s supposed to, we need to have programs like this everywhere in the country.”

Harmon and Owens are two of about 50 volunteers each semester that help educate CPEP’s near-100 adult male students. It’s organized by executive director Rob Scott, who formerly helped develop the Education Justice Project (a prison education program at the University of Illinois) before coming to Ithaca in the fall of 2013. The program was first able to hire an executive director in 2010, when it received a 6-year grant for $180,000-a-year from the Sunshine Lady Foundation, founded by Doris Buffett, sister of investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett.

Owens said that while funding is a challenge, finding enough volunteers is never difficult because of the overwhelmingly positive interaction with the inmates, who are, “so thankful, so appreciative for the opportunity to be involved in a program like this.”

Scott said he hopes to expand the program to form a partnership with other schools and facilities in the area, to give more people the chance for a future after incarceration.

“Everyone reacts differently to working in a prison,” Scott said. “But what they all come out saying is that there are great minds that are inside.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.