Despite heated debate and controversy surrounding the college-in-prison program proposed last semester, the groundbreaking program has been approved and inmates at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, in Cheshire, CT, began their classes at the beginning of fall semester.
This program is a new extension of the University’s approach to college-in-prison education. Before its creation, students were filling this void, teaching workshops at the Cheshire facility. With the addition of this new accredited and faculty-led program, student volunteers have moved the workshops to York Prison, a nearby women’s facility in Niantic, CT.
Wesleyan faculty and the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) approved the two-year program at the end of last year, after debates over the program’s exclusivity and purpose. The Center for Prison Education (CPE) runs the program, which gives inmates at Cheshire the opportunity to take eight classes over the course of two-years, earning eight University credits. These classes mirror the academic rigor of courses on campus and are taught by the same professors.
Wesleyan professors are paid to teach classes to the prisoners on a broad range of subjects. The courses planned for this year include English essay writing, Sociology, Chemistry and Government. The participation of faculty from a variety of disciplines seems to illustrate the high interest in the program.
“At this point we have more faculty that want to teach than we can accommodate,” said Molly Birnbaum ’09, a CPE fellow. “Faculty from the humanities, social and natural sciences have all expressed interest in teaching.”
The program also garnered high interest from prison inmates. There were 105 applicants to the program, who completed a timed essay test in which they were asked to respond to short excerpts from literary and analytical texts. An advisory committee consisting of faculty and administrators chose the best 50 applicants out of the group. Each of the remaining applicants then had to supply an essay resembling the personal statement required in an undergraduate admission process. The committee also conducted interviews.
“We wanted something that mimicked the undergraduate application process, while acknowledging that there are clearly differences,” said Cathy Lechowicz, the CPE manager.
Out of the 50, only 19 inmates were offered admission. These 19 students will be partaking in classes over the next two years.
If the pilot program gets approved it runs its course, CPE hopes to expand it to the women’s prison.
“Our long term hope would be to expand the course offerings, expand the number of inmates in the program and ultimately expand to the women’s prison,” said Lechowicz.
While professors are teaching inmates at Cheshire, student volunteers continue to run informal workshops at York Prison. About 30 students volunteer at York, twelve of whom are part of an on-campus student forum about the college-in-prison programs. The forum provides an opportunity for the students to learn about the prison system, focusing on its history and the massive expansion of prisons in the U.S., as well as the mental and social effects of incarceration. These readings stimulate discussions on prison life, and provide a background for students who are volunteering at the prison.
“It is really beneficial to learn about the history of prison in order to be volunteers,” said Lexi Sturdy ’10, who runs the student forum and coordinates student volunteers at York.
Student volunteers run the workshops in pairs of two, with about 12-15 prisoners attending each course. Students create their own curriculum based on their interests, and also lead group discussions.
“We shy away from thinking that as Wesleyan students we have the ability to lecture or teach a course, ” said Sturdy. “We really try to stress that it’s a workshop where everyone has equal input in what’s going to be talked about.”
While these student-led workshops provide an academic environment for the prisoners—exposing them to ideas and readings they might not have had access to otherwise—they do not carry the academic credit that prisoners at the men’s prison will earn.
The Wesleyan college-in-prison program is a rare example of a type of initiative that has largely disappeared since the mid-90s. After the Clinton Crime Bill was passed in 1994, prisoners were ineligible to receive Pell grants, which forced college-in-prison programs to close or seek private funding—drastically reducing the number of programs across the country. This program is one of a few in the U.S. and the CPE hopes it will serve as an example to other colleges.
“One of the long term goals of this program is to advocate by example for the reinstatement of public funding for college in prison programs,” said Russell Perkins ’09, one of the CPE fellows. “But our most immediate goal is simply to run a great program, one that can be re-approved after this initial pilot stage.”