Associate Professor of English Laurence Erussard taught two sections of a course on medieval literature this past spring. On paper, the classes are indistinguishable. Students in both sections have the same rigorous coursework, read the same texts, and complete a final.
But one class, about 20 miles from the Hobart and William Smith campus, took place at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, N.Y., a maximum security prison. For a few hours each week, inmates on good behavior and who have passed an application process, exercised their minds in HWS faculty-led classes ranging from creative writing and calculus to Buddhism and painting.
“The students at Five Points are so eager and so ready to learn,” Erussard said. “We have been exceptionally lucky to be with people who are very enthusiastic. You can really see their progress throughout the semester, and that’s very exciting. This has been a great investment of time.”
Erussard is one of several HWS faculty members teaching as part of the Colleges’ Second Chances Program, which gives inmates at Five Points the opportunity to take college-level courses. The program, which recently completed its eighth semester, was launched as a pilot project thanks to a collaboration among Erussard, Gideon Porter ’12 and Professor Emeritus of Economics Pat McGuire L.H.D. ’12. The program currently enrolls about 70 inmates in six courses and a writing tutorial program.
During the spring semester at Five Points, Second Chances teachers included Erussard, Visiting Assistant Professor of German Area Studies Ashwin J. Manthripragada, Associate Professor of English Melanie Conroy-Goldman Hamilton, Associate Professor of Religious Studies Richard Salter ’86, P’15, Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science John Vaughn P’08, campus yoga instructor Jacoby Ballard, and Jan Zeserson, Cornell’s East Asia Program Fellow-in-Residence.
Other faculty have included Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish and Hispanic Studies Marcela Romero Rivera, Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature Stephen Cope, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology James Sutton, Professor of Art and Architecture Phillia Yi, and Emeritus Associate Professor of Economics Jo Beth Mertens.
Each semester, at least one math class and two English classes have been made available to the inmates. Erussard’s English courses at HWS and Five Points run parallel to each other, with students exchanging papers to receive anonymous feedback. The experience provides a link among all students during the learning process.
“The Five Points students are generally much older and have different life experiences,” Erussard said. “They react differently to the text. They will write something on the HWS students’ work like, ‘This is what my child would say,’ and put big smiley faces in their feedback. It’s very moving to me.”
Manthripragada said his prison classroom experiences have changed his pedagogy on teaching.
“With the work that I am doing with them, I often forget that I’m in a prison,” Manthripragada recalled. “You see them yearning for education because most have never had this opportunity.”
Manthripragada said some inmates are doing graduate level work. He said he has the same expectations for students at Five Points as he does for any other students. “You have to rise to the challenges of college level work,” he said. “You have to meet the same standard of a liberal arts education.”
This past fall, Manthripragada taught the prisoners “Writing from the Inside,” a writing course that focused on the works of Mahatma Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Anne Frank. In spring 2015, he taught the prisoners “Exploring the Cave of Western Thought.” The course covered Plato’s allegory of a cave and Kafke’s Metamorphosis. He said their reading of the text was some of the most illuminating he has ever experienced.
“The students are in a cave-like allegory – you have to exit through the cave in order to see the light,” Manthripragada said. “As we discussed the literature, we are reminded that we have to enter the cave – the recesses of ourselves – and interrogate self to find enlightenment. It was an important way for them to assess their own situation.”
Virginia DeWees ’16 served as a student Writing Colleague in Manthripragada’s “Writing from the Inside” class. She said that as her third and final placement in the teacher education program before graduating, she couldn’t have asked for a more significant experience.
“It has been a complete honor to work with the students at Five Points,” DeWees said. “They are some of the most intelligent, receptive, thoughtful, and honest students I have ever worked with who have an immense hunger to learn and grow as students.”
Vaughn, who offers multiple courses on mathematics, said teaching at Five Points has been an amazing experience that’s both satisfying and rewarding.
“At the beginning, it can be a real challenge for them to get back in the classroom, to start taking notes and exams, but they have always been up for the challenge,” Vaughn said. “The classes bring a breath of fresh air with new ideas and stimulation to their lives.”