Liberal Arts, Behind Bars

June 10, 2009

When Congress barred prisoners from receiving Pell Grants, in 1994, the college enrollment of prisoners fell dramatically. The numbers are starting to rise again, primarily from community colleges. Four-year private colleges are the sector least likely to offer prison education programs, which is why a recently approved pilot program at Wesleyan University – offering for-credit courses to some Connecticut inmates -- is all the more notable.

Last month, the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education gained full support from the faculty – its last step toward approval, after securing support from the university president and his cabinet. Students had been pushing for the program for several years.

“This has truly been a student initiative,” Cathy Lechowicz, director of community service and volunteerism and advisor to the program, said. “I would say that there is general support around campus – the underlying belief is that prisoners should have access to education.”

Fifteen prisoners at the Cheshire Correctional Institute, for a start. That is how many inmates – of the roughly 1,300 at the Cheshire facility – will be selected through a “competitive application process” for the two-year pilot program, Lechowicz said. The inmate-students will take two courses each semester for a total of four semesters, earning up to eight credits (Wesleyan awards one credit per course). While the inmates are not degree-seeking candidates – as the length of the pilot is not long enough to complete a degree – they will finish courses with full Wesleyan credit, complete with a transcript available should they choose to transfer to another college upon release.

Proposed courses for program participants at Cheshire – the largest high-security prison in Connecticut – range from sociology and English to chemistry and psychology. The courses, Lechowicz said, “will be as rigorous as courses taught on the campus.”

This curriculum is where Wesleyan’s program differs from the majority of prison education programs across the country. According to a 2005 report on the state of postsecondary prison education programs by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, most of the schooling available to prison inmates is more practical than academic.

“[W]hile the percentage of prisoners enrolled in postsecondary education has rebounded to its pre-1994 level, the types of programs available to prisoners has shifted, with the majority of those enrolled in postsecondary programs now taking vocational, rather than purely academic, courses,” the report reads. Vocational programs offer work-related skills -- including literacy -- that may prove useful upon a prisoner's release.

According to the 50-state survey that informed the Institute’s report, nearly two-thirds of prisoners enrolled in higher education correctional education as of the 2003-4 year were pursuing for-credit vocational certificate programs. Just three percent were enrolled in bachelor’s or master’s degree tracked programs.

A primary concern on campus when the prison education program was being proposed was cost. A grant from the Bard Prison Initiative, a program out of Bard College, dealt with that issue for the present. Bard is a liberal arts college that offers college courses at five New York State prisons. Student program leaders at Wesleyan have said they will raise money for future expansion.

But funding is not the only sticking point for some at Wesleyan. There is a tension, Lechowicz said, among “those that take an abolitionist view and feel this is enabling the criminal system,” and there are also “some that want college programs to be more readily accessible to more inmates, whereas our model is very rigorous and will have a small cohort.”

The sentiment was outlined by one student in a student newspaper op-ed, saying that while the Wesleyan program seeks to give educational access to those who would otherwise be denied it, the program “fails by its own logic."

“Cheshire Prison incarcerates approximately 1,361 people,” Sylvia Ryerson, Wesleyan senior, wrote. “This two-year pilot program will admit 15 students in the first year and 30 in the second year, one percent and two percent respectively of the total prison population … rather than enacting the belief that college education should be a right for all, this program explicitly outlines how individuals will be judged in order to determine whether or not they are worthy of this education, by a process that will necessarily privilege those coming from more advantaged backgrounds.”

Still, Wesleyan's program is decidedly different from prison education programs operated in affiliation with community colleges or vocational schools, which cater to more inmates at one time. Inmates who apply to Wesleyan's program and are not accepted will be offered the chance to attend student-led college preparatory workshops.

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