The Cornell Prison Education Program: An Overview

By Christopher Zoukis

Serving the Central New York and Finger Lakes region, the Cornell University Education Program provides college-level instruction to prison inmates who meet the program’s requirements.  Both Cornell faculty and graduate students teach prisoners located at the Auburn Correctional Facility and the Cayuga Correctional Facility.  Cayuga Community College accredits the earned degrees and confers Associate’s Degrees on inmates who complete the required coursework. 

Mission and Vision  Image courtesy facebook.com

With a goal to prepare inmates “to join the workforce as informed citizens” and provide them with new skills to “negotiate some of the tensions that shape their everyday existence,” the Cornell program is small, but utterly focused, according to its website.  Instructors and other volunteers work with inmates in both maximum and medium security prisons and instruct students with an eye to prepare them for their future lives outside of prison once they reenter society.  Students pay no tuition or fees to obtain this valuable instruction from renowned Cornell faculty. 

Program History

While it’s not commonplace for Ivy League institutions to take their coursework to prisons, Cornell began to do just that in 1999 after public funding for prison education was cut.  While the program began on a volunteer basis with Cornell faculty giving their time to area prisons, it has been able to expand its offerings based on grants from foundations like the Sunshine Lady Foundation.  Instructors have designed their curriculum with a largely liberal arts focus.  While Cornell faculty and graduate students provide instruction, the program is also supported by about forty undergraduate students who work as teaching assistants and tutors.

The Program

Each semester Cornell’s staff is able to provide about twelve classes for prisoners.  Most classes are based on natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.  Recent course offerings included classes such as Constitutional Law, Economics, International Human Rights, Shakespeare, Medical Anthropology, and Biology.  The program is enhanced by a series of speakers as well.  Guest speakers from Cornell visit the prisons to speak on a wide array of topics in the hope of nurturing an academic culture in the facilities. 

The program also produces a newsletter and unique “Writer’s Bloc” literary journal with the assistance of instructors and inmates.  Writing allows inmates a creative outlet where they can showcase their talent and express themselves. 

Program Eligibility

Periodically Cornell staff offer entrance exams to determine who among the prisoners may be eligible to begin coursework.  To be eligible, inmates must also have a high school diploma or a GED as well as a “good disciplinary record,” according to their website.  The test is based heavily upon English and math.  In the event that a student demonstrates promising results that don’t quite meet acceptance standards, they may take preparatory classes.  These are non-credit classes, but they provide the instruction needed for students to be ready to enter the degree program itself. 

Reducing Recidivism

A Cornell publication discussed post-secondary education in prison citing studies that prove its merit for reducing recidivism.  According to the article “Every year 700,000 state and federal prisoners exit the correctional system, and most prisoners do not have the means to create a stable life.”  The typical annual rate of recidivism is upwards of 60%.  However, among certain classes of criminals—car thieves, for instance—that percentage stretches to about 78% according to the Bureau of Justice.   Overall, released prisoners are returning to prison within three years of their release at a high—at an unacceptably high rate.

The Cornell article asserts, as many other programs also echo, that prisoners who are returned to society no better than when they entered prison are at high risk for returning to criminal lifestyles.  In our society, even a high school diploma does not get many people particularly far in terms of employment.  A college degree, therefore, is a ticket to a better type of employment and education itself offers students new perspectives about the world and their place in it.  While this Cornell article also asserts that reentry counseling and even drug and alcohol counseling are essential, the author sees post-secondary education as a key element for reducing risks associated with recidivism for New York’s prison population.

Funding is Key—So is Volunteer Commitment

Many post-secondary prison education programs rely on the generosity of volunteers.  Faculty members donate their time and expertise when they teach inmates.  Institutions steer both time and resources to prisons in the belief that can make an important difference.  The Cornell program asks for donations and is also supported in part from foundation funding.  Without tax money to rely upon, programs like the Cornell example must necessarily remain small and work within the confines of their funding structure.

Nevertheless, a photograph on the program’s website can be found under the “commencement” tab which shows recent participates who clearly do not appear like prisoners; they look like graduates and there is a certain promise that their caps, robes, and personal achievements imply.  It’s hard to imagine their new-found knowledge and enthusiasm for a better life will fall by the wayside.  Recidivism rates tend to be about half of what they are among prisoners who do not receive educational instruction.  Not only is that a tremendous cost savings for prisons, it’s a splendid thing for communities where these released inmates return; it’s life-changing for prisoners and their families, too.