February 15, 2006

Prof Teaches Course to Inmates

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Prof. Mary Katzenstein, government, has organized an academic lecture series course on the concept of power for inmates at the Auburn Correction Facility this semester. Inmates who successfully complete this course and have completed previous courses from Cornell faculty are able to receive credit through the Cornell School of Continuing Education.

She is continuing on the path of Prof. Peter Wetherbee, English, and Prof. Paul Sawyer, English, who originally started to work with prisoners on basic writing skills. However, soon the courses became more advanced as the inmates tackled readings in American literature, drama and African-American literature. In the past, graduate students offered help on creative writing.

In order to qualify to take these classes, inmates must have a General Equivalence Diploma and must be in good behavioral standing within the prison.

“Schooling is a privilege and not a right; therefore any prisoner who has any misbehavior reports is automatically eliminated from class,” said David Roth, head of the volunteer services department at the Auburn Correctional Facility.

“These men do not seem like creepy guys. While walking to the classroom there may be some hooting and hollering if there are females around but I have never felt any physical danger in my times there,” Sawyer said. “While certainly not at the levels of Cornell students, some of these men were exceptional writers. They certainly seemed to be the most motivated and brilliant of the hundreds of inmates.”

The first session of the current seminar series last Wednesday was devoted to understanding different definitions of power. Today’s session is a lecture by Isaac Kramnick, the Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government, about the 15th and 16th century political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli. The session could be interesting because of Machiavelli’s views concerning power, according to Samantha Henig ’06, a teaching assistant for the course.

“I would say that it will be particularly interesting to hear how inmates who have arguably been marginalized and pushed down by society discuss issues of power,” Henig said. “I expect that they will react to Machiavelli’s violent suggestions in The Prince quite differently than the typical section of Government 161: Introduction to Political Philosophy students would.”

The Auburn prison is roughly forty miles from Cornell, and the procedure before classes is strict and regimented. The professors and teaching assistants must be at the prison gates by 6:30 p.m., where they will be escorted on a ten-minute walk to the classroom through metal detectors, gates and then an open yard where many of the inmates spend time.

But the time and effort seems to be of little consequence to the individuals who value this experience.

“What we’re dealing with here is truly a social crisis. Such a large number of inner-city African-Americans run through our prison system,” Sawyer said. “Very often the situation is such that the inmate gets out of jail but cannot get a job without any educational background. They rely on the welfare check but it is not very big. So then the possibility of dealing drugs comes into play. And then the inmate goes through the same cycle all over again.”

“I was really shocked and horrified by the phenomenon of mass incarceration, the very weak connection between actual crime rates and the massive rise in incarceration and the ramifications on the incarcerated individuals and society at large,” said Alexandra Bunzl, another teaching assistant for the course. “I was even more upset that this was something that both I and greater society have never lent much attention to. So far, the experience has been unbelievable – exciting, not scary, and surprising in a positive way.”

Most of all, though, there is the feeling of giving back to mostly minority men who these individuals feel have received the short end of the stick in society. The Justice Policy Institute released a report that found in the 2001 academic year, 791,000 African-American men of college age were incarcerated while only 603,000 were in places of higher education.

“You go in there and people are going to appreciate what you’re doing. It eats up a lot of time, but it is a flattering position,” Sawyer said. “You have academic authority, but ultimately, it’s a feeling of wanting to give back. It’s very emotionally tough, but also extremely rewarding. You just hope to make a difference however small it may be.”

Archived article by Alex Lebowitz
Sun Staff Writer