October 4, 2015

Cornell Prison Education Program Receives $1 Million

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The Cornell Prison Education Program received a $1 million grant from The Mellon Foundation on Thursday, which will allow the program to double its presence in central New York correctional facilities, according to Rob Scott, executive director of CPEP.

“We offer more than 30 courses right now with over 100 students within prison walls,” Scott said. “With this grant, we’ll jump to over 60 classes a year and probably more than 200 students once it’s fully implemented.”

The program currently offers courses taught by Cornell faculty and graduate students at Auburn Correctional Facility and Cayuga Correctional Facility. So far, CPEP has held two commencement ceremonies — the first in 2012 and the most recent in 2014 — and conferred more than 15 associate degrees to inmates each time.

The grant money will enable CPEP to expand its services to Five Points Correctional Facility and Elmira Correctional Facility.

The million-dollar grant comes from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which “supports a wide range of initiatives to strengthen the humanities, arts, higher education and cultural heritage,” according to the foundation’s website.

“The Mellon Foundation has a long-standing history with Cornell as sponsors of humanities scholarship and education,” Scott said.

CPEP was established to provide a college education to the region’s inmates and to engage Cornell faculty and students to the incarcerated population, according to the program’s website. The program, unique among Cornell’s Ivy League peers, has been offering courses for credit to inmates without charging tuition or fees since 1999.

“In the past decade, we went from barely offering one or two credit-bearing courses to now basically being the leading institution for higher education in prison in the entire region,” Scott said.

Amber Aspinall ’17, a teaching assistant for CPEP, said she has been interested in the criminal justice system since grade school and that the program has become the focus of her academic life at Cornell.

“The Prison Education Program gave me an opportunity to go into a prison and learn with some of the brightest people I have ever met,” Aspinall said. “Most of the time, we study numbers, statistics and theories. The program puts a face behind them, centering the voices often overlooked in academics.”

Having spent three semesters assisting instructors at Auburn Correctional Facility, Sophie Allen ’16 noted that the students often engage their coursework with an enthusiasm that often times exceeds that of her peers back at Cornell.

“At Auburn, people are jumping out of their seats to answer questions,” Allen said. “In addition to bettering their employment prospects after incarceration, education for them is about learning. It’s about expanding their minds.”

Allen also said she believes education in prison benefits those beyond the individual students.

“The ability to say ‘my dad is getting a degree’ rather than ‘my dad is in prison’ is huge,” Allen said.

Interaction between the students also improves through their education, according to Scott. The cultural climate in prison settings often divides inmates based upon race and ethnicity. In the classroom, these barriers are broken down and connections are fostered through shared academic work.

“Universities could do a world of good in helping to shift the prison culture,” Scott said. “In a long term prison, people will often associate in racialized gangs for protection … We create a multicultural space.”

Evidence indicates that education continues to benefit the inmates after their release by reducing recidivism, according to the CPEP website.

“The primary impact that the program is designed to have is in the prison system, but a very close second is the impact on the volunteers from campus who are transformed by engaging the complexity of the human situation in prison,” Scott said.

Aubrie James grad, a teaching assistant for CPEP, said the program has had a large impact on her.

“I think one of the first steps in solving the problems of the prison system is to raise awareness that the problems exist,” James said. “In CPEP, I have firsthand experience to share with others what’s going on in the prisons. It makes me feel like a responsible citizen.”