May 3, 2002

C.U. English Program Works With Inmates

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“You have to have an active fantasy life in prison,” said Prof. Winthrop Wetherbee, english.

For the inmates of the Auburn Correctional Facility, a program run by the Cornell English department is giving them the chance to put their minds to practical matters.

Along with fellow Prof. Paul Sawyer, english, Wetherbee has been at the forefront of the eight-year-old program that provides inmates of the maximum-security prison with Cornell credit.

Once a week, introductory level courses in American literature, contemporary fiction and drama are taught to the inmates. Although the credit from these classes does not guarantee future acceptance to Cornell, it is no surprise that many are thinking how it will help them beyond the prison walls.

“Many of the inmates talk of setting up their own business or getting their Ph.D. when they get out,” Wetherbee said. “But we advise that they use the credit to get into community college first and to use that as a stepping stone.”

The benefits of the course, however, stretch far beyond academic formalities. The time spent in class has provided a change of scenery that has eased many of prison-life’s restrictive unwritten rules of social interaction.

“[In prison] everybody has to be a part of a group,” Wetherbee said. “Our classroom is a unique meeting place that brings people together with a sense of community and camaraderie.”

A Cornell student in the, “Policing in Prisons in American Culture” class, visited the prison with the English department on two occasions this semester and was also surprised at the lack of hostility present.

“I thought it would be a lot scarier,” said Bria Morgan, ’04. “Everybody was happy to be there and had interesting things to share.”

Indeed, the level that some inmates are working at may be considered surprisingly high. As a filtering process for student selection, all inmates are required to have a high school diploma. But with obvious time available for self-teaching and contemplation, many exceed the boundaries drawn by their past education.

“They are often extremely sophisticated readers, thinkers and critics,” Wetherbee said. “One inmate has had a number of things printed in [local literary newspaper] The Book Press, such as poems and essays.”

The inmates, however, are not the only ones benefiting from the program. The professors acknowledge how volunteer work has its invaluable dividends.

Sawyer noted in particular, that he takes pleasure in knowing that education is proven to be the best form of rehabilitation. Similarly, Wetherbee takes satisfaction in knowing his teaching is, “truly appreciated.”

Prior to Cornell’s involvement with the Auburn Correctional Facility, education in prisons was funded by government Pell grants. Many institutions such as Syracuse University and Cayuga Community College provided full-scale college curriculums in these prisons.

However, after Congress decided to end the funding in a crackdown on crime and a reevaluation on the treatment of criminals, many of these ties with schools ended.

It was at this point that Wetherbee originally became involved at Auburn. He began by teaching correspondence courses until he was authorized to teach regular courses for Cornell credit.

The program has run for five years in its current format with Professor Sawyer being involved for the last three. Three graduate students, Sarah Ferguson-Wagstaffe, Karl Parker and Bill Van Esveld, have also been actively involved in the past year, adding further depth to the program’s faculty.

Nevertheless, everyone from inmates to colleagues is aware of the gratitude owed to Wetherbee, as it has been his passion and commitment that have taken the program from its conception to its current success.

Sawyer noted Wetherbee’s “extraordinary ability” to relate to all types of people with the greatest of ease.

“He spent one weekend with the president of Harvard, giving advice on how to restructure their medieval studies program,” he said. “The next day, he was back in Auburn teaching English to murderers and I’m sure he treated them both in exactly the same way.”

“The inmates respond to his absolute naturalness and genuineness,” he added.

In essence, the inmates are just like any Cornell student, in that they too want the Cornell stamp of approval on their resume. But Wetherbee stated how he is constantly reminded of how lucky he is [and we are] to be able to trade the classroom for a home at the end of the night, rather than for a cell.

The program is obviously teaching the specific classes to great effect but perhaps more importantly, allowing the inmates to perceive their own situation in a way that is seldom heard, through humor.

At the end of one night’s class, in an attempt at boosting morale through a mock pep talk, Wetherbee spoke of the vigor with which they would attack next week’s work. At this point, one of the inmates stood up and said, “And don’t forget, there’s gonna be an exam in nine years.”

With hope to expand to two classes a week provided the number of volunteers continues to increase and a broader vision for other departments to get involved, the future can only look brighter for the inmates of Auburn Correctional Facility.

Archived article by Tom Britton