Dear Members of the Wesleyan Community,

Most current students can agree that having to relocate right before the end of a semester is not easy. In addition to the usual intensity of finals week, students who have just moved back home are now adjusting to sharing Wi-Fi, limited space, and household responsibilities with family members. Those staying on campus must also re-acclimate, but to a much emptier and lonelier environment. It has been a profoundly strange semester, and most of us are just doing our best to make it to winter break.

But within our broader Wesleyan community, there is a group of students who are intimately familiar with the difficulty of managing academic work during a disruptive life transition: the growing number of Center for Prison Education (CPE) students who have been released from prison during their enrollment in Wesleyan’s program.

Since the CPE was founded in 2009, 63 students have rejoined their communities, and several more are likely to return home in the next few years. The CPE offers a liberal arts education to incarcerated students in two Connecticut prisons, Cheshire Correctional Institute (a men’s facility) and York Correctional Institute (a women’s facility). Thanks to a partnership with Middlesex Community College, CPE students can earn an associate’s degree of arts or a bachelor’s of liberal studies in recognition of their hard work. However, as the program continues to expand,  the number of CPE students navigating re-entry while completing their studies is also increasing. In the last year alone, ten students have come home to an environment dramatically altered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Re-entry presents many difficulties even in the best of times, from securing employment to finding affordable housing and obtaining basic items like a phone or driver’s license. These challenges have only increased during the pandemic, especially given that many formerly incarcerated people find employment in the service sector and other areas that have been particularly vulnerable to COVID restructuring and layoffs.

Currently, some re-entry resources exist to serve returning citizens in Connecticut, but the amount of available support varies widely between different state municipalities. In addition, many existing programs provide assistance in only one specific area (such as housing or transportation), resulting in a complex patchwork of service providers that can be tricky to navigate and which still leaves some costs uncovered. In conversations with CPE staff, several program alums described finding unexpected gaps in their support networks, ranging from the costs of smaller items like professional clothing for an interview to bigger expenses like the security deposit for a new apartment or the cost of a computer. It is hard to imagine being able to do much of anything in our current society without internet access or a safe place to call home, let alone to keep up with a curriculum as rigorous as Wesleyan’s.

In order to bridge the gaps between the existing infrastructure and our students’ emergent material needs, the CPE is launching the Re-Entry Fund, an ongoing initiative that will help support released CPE students as they continue to pursue their educations and other long-term goals beyond prison. The CPE sees providing holistic support to our program members as an integral part of our mission to provide unfettered access to a liberal arts education, a commitment that we are determined to uphold both inside and outside of prison walls.

Traditional Wesleyan students enjoy access to a variety of resources that aim to support their future careers and long-term development, from grants to career counseling and professional networking opportunities. Students like me benefit from these resources whether we are on campus or off, and our access does not end after graduation. As the bachelor of liberal studies program opens a pathway to a Wesleyan degree for a variety of non-traditional students, the question of how to meet these new members of our community where they are and help them share in the resources that traditional students enjoy must be considered. The Re-Entry Fund provides a step towards engaging with that question, but it by no means presents a complete answer.

Like the Green Fund, the Resource Center, the Middletown Mutual Aid Collective, and many other initiatives, the CPE was first imagined by a group of Wesleyan students who sought to put the University’s resources to work towards realizing greater social, economic and environmental justice in our community. The CPE has come a long way since those grassroots beginnings, and I have watched it continue to grow in the four years since I first began as a volunteer. But what has remained unchanged is the powerful sense of mutual care and collegiality which permeates every aspect of the program. The CPE quite literally runs on the tireless efforts of hundreds of Wesleyan students, faculty, and dedicated CPE staff members, not to mention the extraordinary work of the CPE students themselves. The amount of passion and dedication that so many different people put into making the program possible is tremendous, and it connects us despite the separation and distance mandated by COVID.

However, there are some barriers no amount of enthusiasm or fervor can overcome. I am greatly saddened by the loss of the CPE’s in-person programming in both facilities this fall. In addition, I am deeply frustrated by our inability to do more to help keep currently incarcerated CPE students, who are especially vulnerable, safe from this terrifying virus.

There are so many causes for worry, fear and sadness in the world right now. Like many others, I sometimes find myself completely overwhelmed by our apparent powerlessness to address so many of them.

However, what gives me hope, and energizes me when the worries grow too heavy, is focusing on the power we do have to make a tangible difference in the lives of those around us. In that light, I strongly encourage members of the Wesleyan community to support CPE students by donating to the Re-Entry Fund. If you are not able to contribute monetarily, you can still help tremendously by spreading the word. Follow us on Instagram, and share our posts and our website with the people in your network.

You may not know any of the amazing students or alums of the CPE, but I hope you get the chance to meet them someday. Working with them has been one of the greatest joys of my Wesleyan career. They are an important part of our Wesleyan community, and when we raise them up, we will all be lifted.

Mary Johnson can be reached at 

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