Courtesy of Cornell University

2016 graduates of the Cornell Prison Education Program throw their caps in the air after receiving their degrees.

October 4, 2018

Cornell’s Prison Education Program Awarded $1.7 Million Grant

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The Cornell Prison Education Program, currently serving over 200 incarcerated individuals, recently received a $1.7 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to grow enrollment and expand course services.

CPEP is a college education program currently serving inmates across four correctional facilities, enabling enrolled students to receive an Associate’s Degree in about three to five years.

The recent $1.7 million dollar grant is meant to offer educational support for the program, expanding course offerings and increasing the number of individuals earning degrees while incarcerated, Robert Scott, the program’s executive director, told The Sun.

Scott said that CPEP leadership expects the program’s growth to help it become a model for the expansion of similar endeavors in the future.

“If you want to continue to expand [prison] higher education in a large state like New York, you need to work with lots of colleges, and Cornell has been an incubator and encourager of collaborating colleges,” Scott said.

For many existing graduates of CPEP, attaining a college degree has changed their post-incarceration trajectories. In terms of recidivism, or the likelihood of a repeat offense, Scott said that the program has seen positive effects in the small number of students who have already finished their degrees and sentences.

“People talk about there being 40-or-so percent recidivism [for previously incarcerated individuals], and that’s not what we’ve seen, nor do I ever expect to see that from a group of college-educated [people],” he said.

Asked about the futures of these graduates, he said that they have been seen utilizing their degrees in various ways, such as “being accepted to elite colleges, acquiring good quality jobs, and in many cases providing mentorship and leadership in their communities.”

Scott said that one previous CPEP student is now enrolled at Cornell University. While the program has no bearing on university admissions, Scott said, he is hopeful that the student’s enrollment is a testament to how “the education we’ve been doing inside the correctional facilities can prepare people for an elite education such as what’s offered here at Cornell.”

The program hopes to use the awarded grant to pursue its dual-ended goals, seeking to benefit both the incarcerated students and the participating professors, graduate students, and undergraduate volunteers of the Cornell community.

Ella Boublik ‘19, an undergraduate teaching assistant at Cayuga Correctional Facility, said that her two years with CPEP have taught her to “hold off on judging people based on superficial, societal labels.” Regarding the grant, she said that it will be “a huge opportunity to continue expanding reach of the program, both inside and outside of the prisons.”

“As a result of the grant, Cornell will be able to increase the number of courses taught which will benefit the students greatly. It will also allow for increased curricular engagement for the Cornell students involved with the program, which I believe will allow the program’s presence on campus to grow as well,” Boublik commented.

Scott said that the CPEP program is unique as it is also a transformation of the student educators involved, which confers into a “transformation of the campus” as students reconsider the effects of mass incarceration.

“I think that [these student educators] are going to be part of a generational shift in trying to change how we think about imprisonment in America,” he said.

“We think that mass incarceration is focused on the prisons, but it could also be thinking about how we interact with all the barriers we’ve set up for people that have been involved in the criminal justice system, and that includes the fact that we have so many students and graduate students who are involved in the prisons here at Cornell,” Scott said.