Courtesy of Cornell Prison Education Program

Inmates are provided college-level courses while incarcerated to obtain college degrees after leaving prison at community colleges.

November 22, 2022

Cornell-Led Programs and Student Organizations Take On Mutual Efforts to Support Prison Education

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In pursuit of fairer education access for incarcerated individuals, multiple campus and student programs collaborate with faculty and students to support criminal justice.

Jodi Anderson Jr. is an example of how these various efforts can succeed. He is an alumnus of Cornell Prison and Education Program, before enrolling at Cornell in 2016. He transferred to Stanford after two years, and is now starting his own business. Last month, Anderson was invited back on campus by Cornell Prison Education and Reform Project, to share his life path, inspiring more Cornellians to support prison education.

CPEP provides college-level courses for selected prisoners in correctional facilities in upstate New York, where faculty members and students can volunteer to teach various weekly courses. After leaving prison, students can obtain college degrees from CPEP’s partner community colleges. 

“We have an entrance exam that is advertised in the prison. Depending on the prison, up to maybe 50 students can sit for this entrance exam,” said Keisha Slaughter, associate director of CPEP.  

Slaughter explained the process for formerly incarcerated individuals’ college admissions. 

“Based on their scores, we will try to admit a cohort, usually of about 20,” Slaughter said.  “Starting in fall 2023, [incarcerated people] will be eligible for Pell Grants again. So it’s possible that the community college partners … might want to have a bigger enrollment in recruitment.”

Incarcerated individuals are federally restricted from financial aid and CPEP has been running solely on fundraising and private donations.

Prof. Ken McClane, literatures in English, is teaching a class on James Baldwin in the Auburn facility this semester. According to McClane, his students in CPEP are the most engaged and intellectually curious students he has ever had.

“I remember when we were talking about something in my past course, and this guy looked at me and said, ‘I would have never thought about this before we started to do this…You made my life both have far more choices, and far more complicated,” McClane said.

Prof. Joseph Margulies, government, agreed with McClane, impressed with the quality of the work from his students. Initially, in 2017 and 2018, Margulies taught two classes on the U.S. Constitution and Writing, but he felt the need to improve students’ ability to articulate their thoughts. Subsequently, he started teaching a writing class to help develop students’ writing skills. 

Some CPEP classes are college-level and have been adapted from past Cornell courses. 

Nikhil Sahoo grad is the teaching assistant for the class “Thinking Mathematically” at Five Points Correctional Facility. As a graduate student in Math, he was assigned to teach the class and hold teaching three-hour sections on Thursday nights in the prison’s computer lab.

“People will come in and ask for help with homework stuff, and usually what ends up happening is that we all grab some whiteboard markers and go back through the concepts and then go from doing work examples to working on some of the homework problems that are similar,” Sahoo said. “My students have been really gracious with me, [they] share with me what their lives are like, [and] help me understand what their needs are and how I can best serve them.”

PREP is a perfect collaboration of students’ efforts in prison education and criminal justice.

Grace Maines ’24, project manager of the Prison Education Tutoring and Outreach Team at PREP, partnered with College Initiative Upstate to provide tutoring opportunities for previously incarcerated people. Tutoring was suspended due to COVID and is going to restart next year, Maines’ current undertaking.

“It’s a community of people who are working together to build pathways to and through college for people who are impacted by the justice system, low-income or non-traditional students,” Maines said. “We help to provide the resources for college preparation, college enrollment and community leadership. And then the way that prep comes into play is that we supply tutors every semester to help tutor people who are studying through cru.” 

PREP includes two other ongoing advocacy projects besides Maines’: Sentencing Advocacy Reform Team and Cornell Divestment. It is currently building Cornell’s Criminal Justice Coalition with other local organizations to integrate the go-to resources and send out newsletters to Cornell students interested in supporting criminal justice.

“I want to set up the infrastructure, so the next generation of kids, five generations down … can have an amazing organization that is a platform for them to really do amazing things,” said President of PREP, Emmanuel Daudu ’23. “One of my dreams is to have justice involved [at Cornell].”

Maines has also collaborated with Prison Express, an Ithaca local non-profit organization to bring prisoners’ artworks into Cornell’s exhibition. According to Maines, the most memorable moment was receiving correspondence from past prisoners she worked with during the PREP project after sending them a congratulatory letter, telling them their art had been chosen.

“People have written to me and … told me that, oh, it makes me feel seen in my life … and I’m not just forgotten here in a cell. The artwork that I was doing here was seen by so many people all over the world,” Maines said. 

Most interviewed faculty members and students chose to participate in CPEP or PREP because they have families and friends who are involved in prison or prison education or have been interested in the topic for a long time. The experience is equally as transformative for participants.

Prof. J. R. Keller, human resource studies, brought his students in his class to prison through the help of CPEP. They had a roundtable dialogue with the prisoners who shared their past and life in prison.

“One thing that stood out to me every time I did this was, it’s all seniors. We’d go on a Friday, left here like nine in the morning and everybody knew each other, so the bus was loud. Everybody who’s chatting and talking about their weekend plans,” Prof. Keller said.  “And when the bus was right back, usually the whole hour was silent. I think that sort of speaks to the impact that [the prison experience] tended to have on people.”

McClane expressed that since almost anyone can be close to incarceration through their own experience or through their loved ones, supporting prison education is important to create empathy.

“My sense is connection requires empathy, and the highest human attribute is empathy. It’s an act of the imagination.” Prof. McClane said. “If you can imagine a good life for you, yourself, you ought to be able to imagine a good life for others, and you ought to make certain that they have that opportunity.”