Cornell students can get involved by serving as course teaching assistants in the Prison Education Program.

January 30, 2019

Prison Education Program Aims to ‘Change the System’ for Incarcerated Individuals

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After being arrested for an unlawful altercation, Darnell Epps ’21 and his brother Darryl served 17-and-a-half years in prison. They had “little reason to be optimistic,” they told the Cornell Chronicle, until they enrolled in the Cornell Prison Education Program.

The program, which provides college courses to inmates at maximum and medium security prisons in upstate New York, aims to “counter a culture of punishment that predominates in the correctional system today,” said Robert Scott, executive director of the Cornell Prison Education Program.

In the program, students enroll in courses covering topics ranging from immunology and science fiction to the Supreme Court and algebra. Scott stated that the program, which has been running for several years, is also helping to launch computer labs.

“Imagine taking a Cornell class where you couldn’t even use an encyclopedia to look something up, let alone the internet,” Scott said. “This might seem basic but in prison people are still using typewriters and cassette tape players — Walkmans.”

Correctional education programs have been found to boost post-release employment and reduce recidivism, according to a 2013 study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Some students decide to continue higher education after their release; Epps now studies government in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“The program was a reaffirmation of my humanity, a way for me to find a sense of purpose,” Epps told the Cornell Chronicle. “The interactions with the teaching assistants and faculty were amazing; they let me know there was a place in society for me.

Scott also emphasized how important it was for Cornell to provide education to prisoners — New York State currently does not award tuition assistance programs to any incarcerated persons in federal, state or penal institution.

“College programs were one of the interventions that were lost when federal and state governments outlawed financial aid for people in prison,” Scott said. “Cornell has been a leader in making this crucially important intervention available, but we need to reverse course on the ban on Pell and [Tuition Assistance Program] grants for people in prison.”

Another goal of the program is to get students and faculty more engaged with the incarcerated population, according the program’s website.

One of the ways undergraduates can get involved is through the Crime, Prisons, Education and Justice Minor in the College of Arts and Sciences, which partners with the Cornell Prison Education program. To complete the minor, students are required not only to take classes in a wide variety of subjects, but also to serve as a teaching assistant for one of the prison education courses.

Prof. Joseph Margulies ’82, law, faculty director for the minor, told The Sun that he hopes this partnership will allow students to combine “academic study of aspects of the criminal justice system with real world engagement.”

Although education is just one step towards improving reform opportunities for inmates in the justice system, Margulies finds hope in active student involvement in the Cornell Prison Education program as well as in his own classes.

“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t change the system, there was no room in the policy narrative,” Margulies said. “It’s now changing, which means that there is a way for students not simply to study this, but to shape this. That’s an exciting moment.”