The Fisher Center hosted members of the Cornell Prison Education Program as a part of the year-long dialogue on imprisonment and its many forms. The discussion was led by Mary Katzenstein and Jim Schechter of the Cornell Prison Education Program and Gideon Porter ’12, who is leading a student effort to create a Prison Program at HWS.
The conversation focused on the major reasons for supporting a prison education program and the issues and benefits that come from such a program. Both Katzenstein and Schechter were supportive of starting a program at the Colleges and shared many success stories from the Cornell program.
Schechter explained that there are currently more prisoners in upstate New York than there are farmers, and noted there are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the country. He also called attention to the collateral damage of the system such as the children who grow up without a parent.
They also shared stories about inmates’ dedication to their coursework. The inmates come to class having read the material multiple times and have rewritten essays by hand to ensure that they were perfect.
“They bring a level of engagement that is radically different than even our most dedicated students at one of the top institutions in the country,” Schechter explained.
Katzenstein said this level of commitment by the faculty is also increased. “The challenge is greater because many of our students haven’t grown up in a traditional learning environment … and so the usual power hierarchies are not there. Our students require our graduate students and professors to really know the material.”
Enrollment into the program at Cornell begins with an entrance exam that is offered annually; from the many who take the test a small group of students are selected. Currently, there are 87 inmates in the program at Auburn Correctional Facility and 34 at Cayuga County Correctional Facility. These student-inmates earn Cornell credits and get transcripts from Cornell and then their credits transfer into Cayuga Community College from which they get their degree.
“The students really want to know that they are earning a grade and that the grade is the same as the grade the students on campus would receive,” Katzenstein said.
Katzenstein is the Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor of American Studies and professor in the Government Department and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Cornell University. She served as the faculty director of the Cornell Prison Education Program from 2008 to 2009. She has written on feminist activism focusing particularly on the United States, Europe and India. Her most recent research focuses on felony disenfranchisement, and she teaches a popular course on prisons and incarceration.
Since 2008, Schechter has served as the executive director of the Cornell Prison Education Program. He holds a Ph.D in cultural anthropology, having conducted long-term fieldwork in a UN refugee camp in northeast Africa. He has since worked extensively in community development, managing local re-entry programs and overseeing a child development/parent education program in Elmira, N.Y.
Students who are interested in learning more should contact Gideon Porter at GIDEON.PORTER@hws.edu