College Ivy Sprouts at a Connecticut Prison – City Room Blog –

November 16, 2009, 12:47 pm <!– — Updated: 12:43 am –>

College Ivy Sprouts at a Connecticut Prison

Three of the 19 inmates in Beth Richards’s expository writing class. All competed mightily for the spots and are earning Wesleyan University credits.

CHESHIRE, Conn. — In many ways it was just another day, another class of Wesleyan University, one of the more selective colleges in the Northeast. The topic was multiculturalism in schools. The discussion focused on methods of evaluating the rhetorical skills of various commentators, from Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to Dinesh D’Souza.

One student pored over the text, his glasses perched at the tip of his nose. Another raised his hand again and again, eager to speak. A third lobbed grenades into the discussion. Several worried aloud about their homework, a research paper due in a few weeks.

After years of slim pickings for prisoners who craved higher education, two Wesleyan University students convinced their school to bring an elite college education to inmates at a high-security prison.

Unlike other Wesleyan classes, though, each of the students — all men — had numbers like 271013 or 298331 on their khaki shirts. They were, in fact, inmates at the state prison here and all part of a daring, privately financed experiment in higher education that takes murderers and drug dealers and other inmates with histories of serious crime and gives them an opportunity to get an elite college education inside their high-security prison, the Cheshire Correctional Institution.

Though community colleges and others, like Boston University, have long had inmate programs, the two-month-old Wesleyan program is one of a few in the country where the selection process is highly rigorous, where academic potential is the primary criterion and where past criminal conduct, however heinous, is not considered in admission.

Some 120 inmates applied at Cheshire for 19 spots in the program. The process required them to submit essays, some of which can be read here, on weighty matters like Frantz Fanon’s view that language helped “support the weight of a civilization” or Sigmund Freud’s thoughts on happiness.

The instructors were impressed with Jose Cordero’s answer to one admission question: What figure, past or present, would he like to meet? Mr. Cordero, who is serving 65 years for murder, said he would like to meet the Constitution, since it is a “living” document.

He got a fat envelope, filled with blank paper for his future assignments. The rejected got those dreaded skinny ones.

Next semester, the inmates will study chemistry, biology and politics. This fall, their courses consist of expository writing and Sociology 152, the same introductory course Professor Charles C. Lemert has been teaching to generations of Wesleyan students at its nearby Middletown campus where tuition, room and board cost roughly $51,000.

“My father does college planning,” said Michael Luther, a 23-year-old who has been incarcerated since he was 15, “and a lot of students he recommends for Wesleyan don’t even get in. When he heard I had this opportunity, he was proud.”

On Wednesdays, students from the Wesleyan campus come to the prison for joint discussion groups with the inmates. The prison is a high-security center that houses roughly 1,350 inmates. It is the place where all of Connecticut’s license plates are made, and it offers a variety of other classes beyond the Wesleyan program, though not college level. The motto posted in the school wing reads “Non Sum Qualis Eram,” or “I am not what I once was.”

Indeed, all the inmates in the program have records that speak clearly about their past wrongdoing. The class has six convicted murderers, two convicted drug dealers and a kidnapper. Collectively, the class faces more than 600 years in prison. Several students, in fact, have little prospect of ever using their college credits in a career: prison will be their home for this lifetime.

But many of them speak with pure clarity about the reasons they were drawn to school again: idle curiosity, intellectual interest, a longing to be part of the big conversations of the day, and a desire for self-respect.

“It’s rejuvenating,” said Antonio Rivera, 23, who likes to read history and is less than halfway through a 12-year sentence for drug dealing.

Serving 50 years, Clyde Meikle said he was grateful for the chance to tackle course work that “takes me out of here.”

Serving 50 years, Clyde Meikle said he was grateful for the chance to tackle course work that “takes me out of here.”

Clyde Meikle, 38, of Hartford is serving a 50-year sentence for fatally shooting a man with whom he tussled over a parking spot. Ten years ago, he earned his high school diploma in prison. He likes to set a positive example for what he calls “the younger cats.”

“For me, it was a self-esteem thing,” he said.

Across the country, colleges faced with shrinking endowments are trying to cut corners, not add programs, and many colleges have given up their inmate education programs in the years since the Clinton administration decided it would no longer subsidize them with Pell grants.

Four years ago, in fact, Wesleyan balked at a proposal to install such a program.

But the university has a long history of civic engagement that traces back to its Methodist roots. It is named after John Wesley, an 18th-century minister who championed prison reform and helping the downtrodden. Two students, Russell Perkins and Molly Birnbaum, who had volunteered in prisons as students, revived the idea last year when they were seniors and figured out a way to finance it.

They obtained nearly $300,000 from the Bard Prison Initiative, a program that already pays to offer Bard College courses in a handful of New York prisons. That should fully pay for Wesleyan’s program for two years and provide partial financing for two more.

“Wesleyan has taken a courageous stand here,” said Max Kenner, the executive director of Bard’s program, who said he is convinced that education is a key tool for reducing recidivism.

How to finance the program over the long term is still under discussion, as is the question of whether an inmate who completes the course work will necessarily receive a Wesleyan degree.

But the instructors insist that the standards are identical — that an A in prison is the same as an A on campus and that the inmates will be entitled to use the university’s career services upon release.

Crime victims and their advocates question whether the investment will be worthwhile. “I appreciate the need to educate offenders, but I’m saddened we don’t spend that kind of money or take that kind of time to rebuild the lives of crime victims,” said Michelle S. Cruz, Connecticut’s independent victim advocate.

Sam Rieger, a Waterbury man whose 19-year-old daughter was murdered by a man now incarcerated at the Cheshire prison, agreed. “This does not make sense to me,” he said of the Wesleyan program. “What is the point?” He said the money should be spent on victims or on trying to help young people make better choices.

On a recent Monday at the prison, Beth Richards, the inmates’ English professor, looked around the class and sought to assure them that they have the same ability to succeed as their main campus counterparts. “Remember,” she said, “for most of literary history, people did it with pencil and paper. I agree you have limitations, but you have no limit on your brain.”

The discussion turned to whether multiculturalism had a place in schools.

Damien Thomas, 33, who is serving a 120-year sentence for two murders, said he took issue with the concept of the melting pot. “The salad bowl theory is better,” he said. “Everyone keeps their different shapes and forms but still contributes something to the salad.”

University administrators say they will raise additional money to finance the program privately so as not to siphon money from Wesleyan’s core mission. That was among the concerns raised by the faculty when it gathered to vote on the proposal last spring.

The vote was first scheduled to be taken on May 6, but it was postponed when a Wesleyan junior, Johanna Justin-Jinich, was murdered that day at the bookstore, turning a tranquil campus into a raucous crime scene. The faculty endorsed the plan two weeks later by a show of hands, with some dissent.

“If anything is unanimous at a Wesleyan faculty meeting, we’d be worried,” said Michael S. Roth, Wesleyan’s president. He said he shared some of the faculty’s initial concerns, but “the students convinced me.”

The university has not fully wrestled with what it would do if inmates were released before completing their studies. Bard faced this issue in May, when a female inmate became eligible for release weeks before her graduation. She extended her stay to receive her diploma.

“Oh, my,” Dr. Roth said upon hearing about the inmate. “I don’t know if that would be the solution I’d want to hear.” He said Wesleyan would be “as helpful as possible to someone who had that kind of dedication.”

During her class in the prison, Professor Richards walked a fine line between energizing her students with the demands of real scholarship and scaring them back into their cells. “My job,” she said, “is to make you at least partially paranoid.”

“Mission accomplished,” said Michael Fauci, 28, a convicted robber.

Vasco Thring, 34, wanted to know whether unwittingly using a phrase like “education begins at home,” which may have been said by someone else before, in a paper constituted plagiarism.

“You are all worriers,” the professor said. “That’s fine. If I have a choice between a group that doesn’t give a rip or worriers, I’ll take the worriers. But trust your intelligence.”

“You’re allowed,” she said, “to make mistakes here.”