March 10, 2014

HENRY | “Us,” Not “Them”

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BY MAGGIE HENRY

On Feb. 16, Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.)  announced a program to bring state-funded, college-level education to prisons across New York State. This fall, the governor’s plan will kick off with courses at 10 of our 58 state prisons. Readers have heard about student support for the plan from The Sun’s news staff and editorial board. You can hear more about the initiative and the Cornell Prison Education Program’s (CPEP) pioneering work in this field from former CPEP student John Crutchfield’s piece in timesunion.com, and from Prof. Glenn Altschuler, Dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions, and Prof. Mary Katzenstein, government, in their Inside Higher Ed essay and article for timesunion.com

I’m writing to share an alternative perspective. Mine doesn’t come from professional or academic expertise, nor have I been a student in the program like Crutchfield. Instead, I am a teaching assistant for CPEP. I am in my fourth semester with the program and I serve on its Advisory Committee.

I’ve actually already written a piece on penal reform and prison education initiatives in my first semester as a columnist. What I didn’t and couldn’t have known then, however, was that there is a positive reality far beyond the statistics supporting college-level education in prisons.

I’m going to share my story of my experiences at CPEP. I hope that some readers consider pulling the headlines from the pages and into their own extracurricular activities.  If you’re looking for more hard information on the positive financial impact of programs like CPEP on recidivism rates (and therefore your tax dollars), I recommend you turn to Professors Katzenstein and Altschuler’s informative piece.

Walking across the cast-iron threshold of Auburn Correctional Facility in the spring of 2012 with my course instructor and fellow T.A., I became nervous. I wasn’t sure how to interact with my fellow students and had a lot of concerns about my participation in the program.

Entering the facility’s empty reception room, I realized that for all my interest and prior reading on penal reform, I really didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. Words on a page are very different from a maximum-security fortress, and I realized that I was a classic example of a student with a lot of words and no action. My sudden realization of my own naiviety made me worried that my background made me something of an experience tourist, checking out a prison from the inside just because I could.

As I sat down in the facility schoolhouse, I realized that a lot of my fears were due to stereotypes. Despite the incredible work I had read by CPEP students and the positive experiences friends had had in this community, I was still applying fear to my surroundings because of criminal tropes. I felt disappointed in myself, and not less nervous for realizing that my fears were outsized for the wrong reasons.

Eventually, students started wandering in from the Yard and introducing themselves. I sat at a U-shaped desk formation we had arranged, drumming my fingers on the metal table. Eventually, a guy who is now a friend and fellow student in my current Auburn course sat down and we began chatting. He welcomed me, asked me my major and shared stories from past classes that put me totally at ease.

Over the past two years, I’ve worked with students on their birthdays. I’ve talked to them on holidays, on their children’s birthdays and on those children’s graduations. Many students have inspired their children to attend college themselves. The student who made me comfortable that first, slushy, spring day now has a daughter at Union College, who chose that school to be close to him. He tells me about how they share class stories and assignments and about how happy he is to be able to be in touch with her.

Just as his new connection with his daughter comes from academics, so does my friendship with him. We don’t share many personal details, per Auburn regulations, but have developed a bond through conversation and mutual study. He and other students I’ve gotten to know through several classes are some of the warmest, most mature people I have met.

In that way, the guys in the program are my peers, and I refer to them as such. That’s because they are. In their article, Professors Katzenstein and Altschuler refer to the “us-them” divide that is so prevalent in our mindset about prison populations. Even when people sympathize with incarcerated persons, we still tend to categorize the group apart from “us.” Treating prisoners as a “them” is a fallacy, especially given that incarcerated people are released back into “our” schools, “our” neighborhoods, especially given that one out of every 100 American adults is incarcerated. “They” are just a part of us and their growth changes the lives they touch.

More than this statistical truth, my experiences show me just how much people change over time and how powerful education can be. I harbor no illusions about what landed many CPEP students in Auburn, and neither do many of the students themselves. But that truth does not change the genuine transitions and growth I’ve been able to be a part of at CPEP.

When I first applied to T.A. for the program, in my head I definitely perceived it as a service opportunity. What I’ve realized since then is that it’s not a service opportunity, but a learning one. I’ve learned more about people and have gotten to watch more small personal transformations each week than most people are lucky to be a part of in a lifetime.

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