September 13, 2007

Outreach Program Brings Opportunity Behind Bars

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When Stephen J. Matthews 94B0496 sits down to write a paper for English 382/284, he could be sitting down in Libe Café in Olin Library. Unlike traditional Cornell students, however, he is studying an hour away in a maximum-security cell in Auburn through Cornell at Auburn, an outreach program designed to promote rehabilitation in the prison that sits only 35 miles north of Ithaca.
The number after Matthews’ name is the only give-away that ‘Milky Way,’ one of his assignments, was not written by a Cornell undergraduate student. Milky Way recently appeared in SCOPE, an Internet publication of Auburn inmates’ work that features creative, editorial and periodical writing. SCOPE, Symbolizing Creativity On Prison Environment, was originally the idea of Prof. Gerald Gabriel, engineering communications. Gabriel began his work with the Cornell at Auburn program several years ago, but he wanted to offer even more to the inmates.
“A lot of the guys were [in Auburn] for a long time and had been taking creative writing classes for decades,” says Gabriel. “It became clear to me that these guys were a little bored with the role of the student, so I was interested in finding a way to capitalize on their obvious talent.”
Some students who have worked on SCOPE are encouraged by its promise.
“From what I’ve seen of the writing I feel this magazine has great prospects,” said Helga Sverrisdottir grad. “I’m excited to be part of a project like that.”
While SCOPE was bortrio recognized the Auburn program as a tremendous opportunity and pushed to provide regular college classes to the inmates.
Lynne Abel, former associate dean for undergraduate studies, approved Cornell at Auburn to become a full Cornell Outreach Program, complete with extramural academic credit. Glenn Altschuler, dean of the school of continuing education, agreed to sponsor the courses offered at Auburn so they would be tuition free. The office of Continuing Education takes care of the paperwork and transcripts for the Auburn students.
While Wetherbee believes that some of the Auburn students are capable of the Cornell course load, the classroom atmosphere at Auburn is certainly different from that of Cornell.
“[The Auburn] classroom is a kind of oasis,” Wetherbee said. “The prison is a very segregated atmosphere with a lot of pressure [and violence], but in a classroom [the inmates] can be friends.”
Cornell at Auburn offers free Cornell classes to any inmates that want to participate. The only requirement to enroll is a high school diploma. With no salary for instructors, the program depends on volunteer participation.
Volunteers include members of the Cornell faculty such as Prof. Mary Katzenstein, government. At Auburn, Katzenstein teaches a course on theories of power. She has worked with both graduate and undergraduate students at Auburn.
“[The] undergraduates that have worked with me have been nothing short of fantastic,” said Katzenstein. “I think the value of these programs is as much for what it does for Cornell as it is for Auburn students. Cornell students have built on these experiences to go on and work as journalists; in the courts … in organizations that support people coming out of prison.”
According to Wetherbee, the Cornell student volunteers are highly valued because they provide a variety of important functions. As assistants, they discuss a student’s work in a one-on-one conference setting. Sometimes, if necessary, they substitute and teach a class if the regular instructor is absent. Student volunteers also have the opportunity to offer input on class material.
“Another important function [of the student volunteers],” Wetherbee said, “is just sitting and talking with the [inmates].”
Wetherbee continued to say that over half of the student volunteers are female, which is significant because many of the inmates have been incarcerated since they were relatively young and have had minimal exposure to the female sex.
“[The inmates] don’t have any realistic sense of how to interact with women, so they are very respectful,” Wetherbee said.
Both SCOPE and the Cornell at Auburn program symbolize efforts to incorporate rehabilitation into the incarceration process. According to ‘Cornell at Auburn: An Experiment in Teaching and Learning,’ an essay written by Wetherbee, a majority of state corrections systems offer college-level programs and every state has experienced positive effects of the programs.