Another Way: Cornell Prison Education Program aims to help inmates find a path out of recidivism

By E.C. Barrett
Tompkins Weekly

At this time last year, New York state correctional facilities housed 77,227 inmates, resulting in an annual cost of $60,076 – shouldered by taxpayers – per inmate.
Thirty-six percent of the prisoners do not have a high school diploma, compared with 19 percent of those in the general population, and around 40 percent of those released from prison return within three years of getting out – largely due to parole violations.
Some state lawmakers – including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo – prison reform advocates and educators, such as those with Cornell’s Prison Education Program, see education as a path away from the revolving door of incarceration. It has the added benefit of making communities safer and healthier, while decreasing the cost of operating the prison system as it currently exists.

Cornell Prison Education Program

Photo by Dave Burbank
A 2016 Cornell Prison Education Program graduate poses for a photo with his sons.

As early as 1996, Cornell instructors volunteered in local prisons, but it wasn’t until 2008 that Cornell Prison Education Program first became a degree-granting program. Operating in three area prisons – two maximum-security and one medium-security – with 20-30 teaching assistants per semester, CPEP offers inmates classes in a range of subjects with the potential to earn an associate’s degree from Cayuga Community College. In the fall of 2016, 15 inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison, graduated from the Cornell Prison Education Program
Cornell graduate and Ithaca College faculty member Alex Chertok, who has been teaching at Auburn for three years, first joined CPEP after hearing an admired author speak in an interview about his life-changing experience teaching with CPEP.
“I didn’t know much about the prison population and was just as intimidated as everyone else and wanted to break through that stigma,” Chertok said. “When I first started teaching I looked around and I saw a classroom of criminals. As the semester went on the fear was replaced with a kind of admiration for them.
“You learn to see the prison students as students as opposed to convicted felons,” he added. “They’ve done some heavy stuff, but it doesn’t take long before we see them as students and in many ways they are far brighter and more engaged and more inquisitive than any Cornell or Ithaca College student.”
Instructors and teaching assistants with CPEP complete an orientation program, including fingerprinting at the prison and what Chertok described as a “scared straight” program, before working in the prison classroom. Cornell graduate students, and undergrads in their sophomore year and above, can apply to be teaching assistants with the program. Doctoral students who have passed their ‘A’ exam, faculty members and postdoctoral fellows can volunteer to teach their own classes with CPEP.

Photo by Dave Burbank
A 2016 CPEP grad receives his diploma.

“Teaching in the program presupposes a fundamental belief in forgiveness, second chances and redemption,” Chertok said. “In general, these inmates come from awful backgrounds. They were the victims of abuse, violence or neglect.
“Most of them come from upbringings that didn’t give them a fighting chance to be functional or contributing members of society,” he added. “They were never given an opportunity like this before and everyone deserves an education and a chance to feel fulfilled and self-actualize. In many cases we are the first time these guys get that chance.”

Education Makes A Difference

Photo by Dave Burbank
The CPEP Class of 2016 poses with Auburn Coordinator Kyri Murdough.

According to a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization, on average, inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than inmates who did not. The study also found that prison education increases the odds of obtaining employment post-release by 13 percent over those who had not participated. In other words, prison education decreases the cost of prison for taxpayers by reducing re-incarceration rates.
For CPEP Executive Director Robert Scott, prison education is not only a matter of reducing incarceration rates, crime or prison costs, but about recognizing inmates as people in communities with others and asking what benefit society gets from an uneducated prison population.
“People who are in prison aren’t dead and are still U.S. citizens and have brains,” Scott said. “So they’re still in there influencing lots of other Americans and others who are incarcerated and, unsurprisingly, some of them would like to learn more about their world and think about the things that people who are non-criminals think about, including things like ethics, history, how to become a better communicator, writing, literature, arts, even getting into forms of wellness, health, and exercise.
“So that’s a lot of what happens when people in prison study in college,” he added, “the same thing that happens for other people when they study in college.”
For Chertok and his CPEP cohort, the benefits of prison education extend to the instructors as well.
“Everyone who has gone through the program has called it varying degrees of life-changing. It’s edifying to see how similar these incarcerated guys are to us,” he said. “That’s the first shock, that they have nightmares and dreams and fears and they are complex people, so that’s the first empowering realization as an instructor.
“It’s a beautiful feeling to watch ourselves undergo the process of seeing these guys as humans,” Chertok added. “It’s empowering to know we are capable of meaningfully interacting with people we were afraid of in the beginning.”
For more information on the Cornell Prison Education Program, to find out how to get involved and to hear what inmates have to say about the program, visit cpep.cornell.edu.