“Higher Education Has Given Me My Humanity Back”

Carlos discussing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, October 2016. Photo courtesy of Cornell University.
“Now, I am not my crime, I am the person who wrote this essay.”

I recently heard these words from an incarcerated student while sitting in a windowless cement block classroom with the faculty and executive director from the Cornell Prison Education Program, other college, university, and community re-entry program administrators, prison officials from the Five Points Correctional Facility (Romulus, NY), and representatives of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.  In the front of the room six men in their 30s and 40s sat behind a spare wooden table awaiting a turn to talk about their course work in the liberal arts, the associate degree program in which they were enrolled through Cornell University and Cayuga Community College, and the impact of prison and higher education on their lives.  Several students have been incarcerated since their late teens and a few have more than a decade remaining on their sentences. 

If I had closed my eyes, I could have been in any college classroom in America listening to undergraduates and their professors model the critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and oral communication skills that are the cornerstones of a liberal arts education.  But my colleagues and I had just walked a half mile down an endless corridor, pausing occasionally at check points as corrections officers described the various cell blocks that populate a maximum security prison, including the “SHU”—the Special Housing Unit—where inmates are held in disciplinary confinement.  

As I looked around the classroom, I was transfixed by the intellectual quality of the students’ presentations, their eloquent, thoughtful, and personal connection to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Melville’s Moby Dick, and King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, and their obvious pride in mastering the introductory principles of micro- and macroeconomics in a single semester. When a faculty member, playing the role of devil’s advocate, questioned the value of taking courses in the arts and humanities at a time when vocational education and workforce development are ascendant, one student’s response gave me a lump in the throat:  “I would love to have a trade and a job upon my release,” he observed, “but the courses I take in literature and philosophy are about pure happiness.”  I turned to the faculty member seated next to me and we both mouthed “wow!”  At the same time, the fact that these incarcerated students did not let us forget that they had done some terrible and heinous things only reinforced the redemptive and transformative quality of the experience. As another student observed, “Now, I can tell my son and daughter—go to college.  If I can do it, you can too.”

Criminal justice reformers and the advocates of prison education recognize that we are living in an historic moment when the social, economic, and political consequences of mandatory sentencing and mass incarceration have become part of the national conversation.  Punishment and detention powerfully shape our economy and democratic institutions. With only 5 percent of the earth’s population, the US imprisons 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people—predominantly blacks and Latinos, who account for 72 percent of the federal prison population and the majority of people in state prisons.  More African American men are behind bars than in college. The numbers of women of color are equally stark: 133 of 100,000 black women and 77 of 100,000 Latinas are incarcerated compared with 47 of 100,000 white women.  At a time when the nation’s colleges and universities are deeply committed to addressing the challenges of access, equity, diversity, and inclusion, and reducing the disparities in degree completion by race and class, the carceral state raises disturbing questions about justice, fairness, and proportionality. 

Higher education institutions, particularly community colleges, have been involved in prison education since Pell Grants were introduced in the early 1970s, only to end their engagement when Congress eliminated grants for incarcerated students in the mid-1990s.  Recently, partnerships between community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and foundations have galvanized a resurgence of interest in postsecondary programs and the Obama Administration’s launching of a Second Chance Pell Pilot Program has engendered cautious optimism about the possibility of restoring educational opportunity more broadly. Although some early education-in-prison programs have enjoyed strong institutional support, many were sustained by individual faculty members who volunteered their time year after year. These veteran activists and a new generation of faculty, graduate students, undergraduates (acting as teaching assistants), and program and university administrators deserve our deepest respect and admiration, as do prison officials, state departments of corrections administrators, formerly incarcerated students, and journalists across the country who are unwilling to accept the cynicism and pessimism of punishment without reconciliation and the restoration of human dignity.

The Mellon Foundation is a newcomer to the education in prison movement and we have learned a great deal from foundation colleagues around the country who are creating public-private and cross-sector partnerships that provide pathways to replicable, sustainable change. This is one reason why we support the Opportunity Institute’s Renewing Communities effort to build statewide links between California’s criminal justice and higher education systems, particularly community colleges.

On the bus ride back to Cornell from Five Points, I remembered a comment that a formerly incarcerated student had made earlier in the week at a reception hosted by the Justice-in-Education Initiative, a collaborative partnership that we are proud to support between Columbia University’s Center for Justice and the Heyman Center for the Humanities.  This young man described his life in terms of the handful of months he had spent “on the outside” between the ages of 16 and 23. Then he took a deep breath and said, “Higher education has given me my humanity back.”

There is no doubt that taking college courses reduces violence in prison, improves incarcerated students’ ties with their families, lowers recidivism rates, and improves job prospects upon release.  It is also much less costly to educate an incarcerated student than to keep that individual behind bars. These are important and valuable contributions but the life-changing opportunity to restore a person’s humanity is what I will remember from my first visit to a prison classroom.