In a Major Grant, More Evidence That Prison Education Programs Are Gaining Steam

Programs to bring higher educational opportunities to prison inmates continue to grow in popularity, particularly in the state of New York. Bard College, Columbia University, and Cornell University — all in the Empire State — are some of the leading institutions offering inmates the chance to earn college credit leading to an associate's degree.

These programs have garnered attention and support from leading funders, including the Ford, Kresge, and Mellon foundations. Most recently, Mellon awarded a three-year, $1 million grant to support the expansion of the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP). The Cornell program has reached 100 inmates at the Auburn and Cayuga correctional facilities in New York. With funding from Mellon, CPEP plans to bring college behind bars to two additional prisons: Five Points Correctional in Romulus, NY, in 2016 and to Elmira Correctional in 2017.

CPEP offers a range of liberal arts programs that lead to an associate's degree. Cornell faculty and doctoral students teach the courses, and a community college confers the degrees upon the inmates who successfully complete the program. Courses offered by CPEP include economics, creative writing, constitutional law, medical anthropology, genetics, mathematics, and Asian meditation. Funding from Mellon will enable CPEP to employ additional instructors and graduate students, who receive a stipend for their work. The grant will also cover textbooks and other instructional materials.

Mellon's past funding activities underscore its commitment to extending college opportunities to the incarcerated. Earlier this year, the funder awarded $1 million to Columbia University and its Heymann Center for the Humanities, to support the Justice in Education initiative, which offers college courses to current and former inmates. Similar efforts in other states have drawn support from prominent funders. The Ford Foundation has supported California's prison education initiatives, while Kresge has funded arts instruction in Michigan prisons. 

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Shifts in criminal justice policy have fueled the growth of such programs, as states look for ways to reduce their prison populations — and the cost of incarcerating so many individuals — through efforts designed to reduce criminal recidivism. Policymakers, however, are reluctant to fund college behind bars programs. In New York, the site of prison education programs at Bard, Cornell, and Columbia, Gov. Andrew Cuomo backed away from a plan to fund college courses for inmates after meeting opposition from legislators.

The Obama administration provided a glimmer of hope, announcing this summer that it would reinstate Pell grants for a limited number of prisoners working toward college degrees. 

Still, political resistance among many state lawmakers means funders will continue to play a pivotal role in the survival and expansion of these programs. Continued evidence of these programs' success may lead other funders to lend their support, creating more opportunities for colleges and universities interested in extending educational opportunities to the incarcerated.