While the risks associated with the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and classrooms prompted the Cornell Prison Education to halt all courses at local prisons, the pandemic hasn’t stopped the program from serving local prison populations.
As classes are put on pause, CPEP leaders have refocused their efforts on other issues affecting inmates, including protecting inmates’ health during COVID-19. In early April, CPEP Executive Director Prof. Rob Scott, plant science, reached out to the New York Department of Corrections to suggest providing masks or face coverings to the prison population to protect against the spread of the virus.
Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annuci approved the request, and the state’s college-in-prison programs quietly rallied to raise funds to provide a mask for everyone in state prisons — a current total of 42,784 people — within a week.
“While the [incarcerated] population has the option to fashion their own state-issued handkerchiefs into masks, there is no question that the availability of these new cloth masks, which have been designed as masks and can be readily washed and reused, will be a much more attractive option for the population,” Annuci said in a May 1 press release.
As a result of these efforts, the New York Consortium for Higher Education in Prison, a coalition of providers working to bring higher education to men and women during and after incarceration, will provide protective face masks to the entire incarcerated population in New York State.
This first purchase of 10,000 reusable masks for the nearly 43,000 incarcerated people in the state is a step forward to help protect those behind bars, for whom social distancing is almost impossible.
Tess Wheelwright MFA ’16, the academic director of CPEP and lecturer, researched mask design and identified one that best fit the needs of the correctional environment, which are plain, uniform masks that are reusable, washable and affordable.
Through Cornell networks, she also found a trusted local manufacturer, Finger Lakes Textiles, of the not-for-profit organization Mozaic. Locally, CPEP Teaching Assistant Ben Finegan ’19 reached out to Mutual Aid Tompkins, a county-based group who pledged a contribution to the cause.
Scott explained that this was not an initiative of any single program, but rather the result of the combined efforts and speedy responses from many programs across the state.
“Leadership from the college programs wanted to see more protective equipment for the incarcerated population,” Scott said. “We knew that we had the resources to make an impact so we approached NY-DOCCS, and we are grateful they agreed to team up and move quickly.”
As of May 1, there have been no reported coronavirus cases in the four correctional facilities in which CPEP operates — that include Auburn Correctional Facility, Cayuga Correctional Facility, Five Points Correctional Facility and Elmira Correctional Facility — according to the most recent reports from NY-DOCCS.
Annuci said the mask-making effort goes beyond CPEP and other institutions’ commitment to making higher education accessible to prisons.
“I firmly believe that higher education is transformative, in that incarcerated individuals come to recognize and appreciate the collective humanity we all share,”Annuci said. “On behalf of the entire Department, I extend our deep felt appreciation to [New York Consortium for Higher Education in Prison] and its many generous supporters, for their thoughtfulness in helping to make the correctional environment a safer one, for all who live and work there.”
Olivia Cipperman ’23 contributed reporting.
Clarification, May 8, 1:41 p.m.: A previous version of this article used a quote from Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annuci that was said in a press release, not to The Sun. The article has since been updated.
Correction, May 8, 2:02 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated Tess Wheelwright’s position at the University. Wheelwright is the academic director of CPEP and a lecturer, not a professor. The article has since been updated.