This Wednesday, faculty members will vote on the proposed Wesleyan Center for Prison Education (WCPE) pilot program.  If approved, the two-year pilot, set to begin in fall of 2009, will allow 15 inmates from Cheshire Correctional Institute access to courses taught by Wesleyan professors for Wesleyan credit. 

Although planning for the two-year pilot program began last fall, development of a Wesleyan College in Prison program has been ongoing for several years, both in the form of campus activism and informal student-led workshops at nearby Cheshire and York Correctional facilities. About five years ago, students proposed a College in Prison program. Due to a lack of funding and support from the administration, however, the initiative was unsuccessful. 

Two years ago, the workshops came under the direction of the Prisoner Solidarity Project (PSP), a program of the Office of Community Service and Volunteerism. Through the PSP, about 30 students have been volunteering and teaching the informal workshops for the past two years. Ranging from creative writing to philosophy, the topics of the workshops have depended on the student’s particular area of study or expertise.

Located about twenty minutes from campus, Cheshire Correctional Institute houses approximately 1,345 inmates. Aside from educational programming, the institute offers inmates other opportunities including learning a trade through prison industries, addiction service programming and religious programming. The student-led workshops have promoted the development of a strong relationship between Cheshire and Wesleyan.  

“This truly has been a student initiative,” Cathy Lechowicz, director of Community Service and Volunteerism wrote in an e-mail to the Argus.

Lechowicz, who currently advises the Prisoner Solidarity Project workshops, has been meeting with the student leaders of the WCPE to develop the pilot program.  If the initiative gains faculty approval, the WCPE will run out of the Center for Community Partnerships. Lechowicz will also serve as an administrator on the program’s advisory board along with Sonia Mañjon, the vice president for Diversity and Strategic Partnerships, and Karen Anderson, direction of the Graduate Liberal Studies Program.  

Three professors, each from one of the separate academic divisions, will sit on the advisory board. Sean McCann, Professor of English and American Studies, has acted as an informal advisor to student coordinators since last spring and has been asked to serve on the advisory board if the program is approved. In January, McCann hosted a faculty Academic Roundtable that looked at the College in Prison initiative. Though McCann noted that the program is in a planning, pre-approved stage, it has the potential to benefit both the inmates at Cheshire and the University.

“I think [the College in Prison pilot program is] a very good thing for Wesleyan to do,” McCann said. “It’s a way that Wesleyan can live up to some of its civic responsibilities.”

By working closely with Cheshire and student coordinators, the advisory board will establish the program’s curriculum and develop an assessment for the two-year pilot period.

On April 6, the initiative gained the support of President Roth and his cabinet. The Educational Policy Committee (EPC) unanimously approved the program on Monday, April 27. According to Molly Birnbaum ’09, a co-coordinator of the WCPE, a vote of unanimous approval from the EPC gives the initiative a greater chance of being approved by the faculty.  Although faculty support dictates implementation of the program, the vote will also determine whether the inmates are to be awarded University credit for the courses. 

“Hopefully the unanimous vote from the EPC will serve as a strong endorsement of the proposal,” Birnbaum wrote in an e-mail to the Argus.

The program will be highly selective, requiring interested individuals to go through a rigorous application process to gain admission to the courses.  While only 15 individuals will be able to take credit-courses led by University professors, those who apply but are not accepted will be offered the option of attending college preparatory workshops taught by Wesleyan students.  

Through a proposed service-learning course in the American Studies department,  “Critical Pedagogy,” students will learn about the history of incarceration and teach critical reading and writing workshops to gear inmates towards later admission to the program.  

“We don’t want this program to only serve a small educated elite in the prison,” said Russell Perkins ’09, a co-coordinator of the WCPE.  “We intend to work continuously working towards broadening the base of students who would be prepared to succeed in college courses.”

The program will offer two courses each semester.  Currently, the proposed courses include the fields of sociology, English, chemistry and psychology.  In the second year, the 15 inmates will continue taking courses through the program.

During the spring semester, Professor of Sociology Charles Lemert plans on teaching the sociology course, “America as a Global Thing,” which offers an offbeat introduction to the field.  Lemert has acted as an informal advisor for the Wesleyan College in Prison program for several years.  Despite the efforts of student leaders, the program initially had difficulty gaining traction, explained Lemert.

“It is important to remember that work with prisons and prisoners is not well understood and threatening to many people,” Lemert wrote in an e-mail to the Argus. “This may be why for many years it was difficult to get the program to the stage it is now and why the President, the deans and the faculty deserve a round of applause for putting the program on the agenda.”

Over the course of the development of the WCPE pilot program, one of the main concerns has been that the initiative would draw on the University’s resources. However, full funding for the program will come from a private grant given by the Bard Prison Initiative. Receipt of the grant, however, did not dictate the development of the pilot program. For the past five years, students involved in the initiative have been working to solicit funding for the program from various sources.  The close relationship with the established Bard program, however, facilitated funding for the WCPE. If the program passes, student fellows will begin engaging in fundraising efforts for future development of the program.  

“We expect to generate an endowment for the program to ensure its longevity,” Birnbaum wrote in an e-mail to the Argus.  

Students involved in the WCPE initiative are in the process of developing a partnership with nearby Yale University and Trinity College.  The partnership would allow the program to bring in professors from the other institutions to teach at Cheshire, which would place less pressure on Wesleyan professors.   

“Even though the program needs just 1 or 2 professors each semester, it is important that it not impinge on the availability of faculty to undergraduates.” Birnbaum wrote in an e-mail to the Argus. “We can use these partnerships to mitigate any potential burden to Wesleyan professors. However, we do want this to be a truly ‘Wesleyan’ program, and teaching priority would always be given to our own faculty.”

The Correctional Institute is in full support of the pilot program. 

“Cheshire cannot wait for us to start,” Birnbaum said. “We say that this is exactly the time Wesleyan should do something like this. We’re really pushing the boundaries of higher education at no cost to Wesleyan.”

  • Kenneth L Parker, Associate Professor, St Louis Univ.

    I want to applaud the effort at Wesleyan University and wish you well. Saint Louis University began a pilot certificate program in 2008, and is working to develop a two year program that will be launched in 2010. One innovation that we have introduced into the project, has been to offer sections of courses to prison staff as well as prisoners. Because we are serving in a staff where fewer than 10% of the population has college degrees, we see this as a way to deal with the larger problem of placing prisons in economically deprived rural communities. It improves the staff’s attitude toward the project (so that prison students can get to class!), and opens channels of communication in unexpected ways. Staff also have access to Pell grants and VA benefits, which may help finance the hard costs of the program. I am pleased to see that your program, like the Bard Prison Initiative, is student led. This bodes well for the future. Congratulations!