As America’s prison population continues to climb, prison reform becomes increasingly salient. But in a political climate dominated by rhetoric about spending reductions, many reform advocates encounter resistance to proposals for funding directed towards the incarcerated. Wesleyan University’s Prisoner Education Program has overcome that resistance—securing funding that will allow it to continue offering services through 2016. Inaugurated in September of 2009, the Program provides educational opportunities to violent offenders in a maximum-security facility. Below, Alexis Sturdy—the program’s fellow—discusses some of the challenges that the program has encountered, as well some of the program’s achievements and aspirations. Comments on the model, its implications for prison reform, and its merit, are encouraged. Additional commentary is also available from the New York Times and the Middletown Press.   

1) Have there been any significant challenges the program has faced? Have you been able to overcome those challenges?  And what kinds of changes have been made from how the program was first envisioned and planned?

The program has faced numerous logistical challenges in its first two years, stemming primarily from the student’s lack of access to resources at the facility. The men in the program are held to Wesleyan standards and are expected to complete Wesleyan caliber work during the semester. But unlike typical Wesleyan students, these men do not have access to the Internet, extensive libraries or unlimited computer use. In an attempt to overcome these obstacles, the Center for Prison Education has developed a strong and valuable relationship with the Wesleyan library, which has worked tirelessly to ensure that the men are receiving as many resources as possible. The library has set up research databases and the JSTOR index on the prison computers, the same ones in which on-campus students have access. The men are able to request books from the Wesleyan catalog for their research that we can pick up and deliver to the prison. They are still limited to six hours of computer use per week to type papers and do research, but we have tried to provide as much access as possible given the limitations.

2) What is the primary aspiration of the program?

As per our mission statement, our primary aspiration is “to advance Wesleyan’s commitment to civic engagement by offering college courses to incarcerated individuals, in order both to enrich the lives of those who are systematically denied access to educational opportunities and to enhance Wesleyan’s academic community.” We believe that given proper access to resources and the chance to succeed, these men can actively contribute to society.

3) What are the program’s greatest achievements?

Our greatest achievement has been simply bringing educational resources to the prison. Providing access and opportunity, even in a restricted setting, has allowed for prison inmates to successfully complete Wesleyan classes at Wesleyan standards. There have been other positive impacts, like changes in prison atmosphere and reduction in disciplinary tickets,  that we did not initially anticipate, but still consider to be constructive achievements of the program.

4) Have participant’s been able to use their skills to lobby for prison reform, or express their views on other issues in forums beyond the prison community?

As a university, Wesleyan has outlined ten essential areas of knowledge that are furthered by Wesleyan courses. These Essential Capabilities include Writing, Speaking, Interpretation, Quantitative Reasoning, Logical Reasoning, Designing, Creating, and Realizing, Ethical Reasoning, Intercultural Literacy, and Effective Citizenship. We believe that the men have been able to grow in these capabilities, which has in turn helped them to express their views. The students have submitted opinion articles to the Wesleyan Argus, the biweekly student newspapers, as well as literary magazines on campus. Quite a few of the men have been active within their own communities in the prison, leading informal study sessions for men who were not admitted to the program. As a group, they frequently discuss current events and issues within their home communities and I believe they will remain active in these circles.

5) Is the curriculum designed with any express purpose in mind? How much input do participants have in that process and have any courses proven particularly popular?

For the curriculum, our expressed purpose is to offer a broad liberal arts education. We have offered diverse classes in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The specific classes are based on professor-submitted proposals that are selected by an advisory board of professors. Our first cohort of 19 men all enrolled in the two classes we offered each semester. Starting in the fall of 2011, we hope to offer four classes a semester to two cohorts of men, giving each student a choice of two classes. While inmates do not have direct input in the curriculum, they do fill out standard Wesleyan teaching evaluations at the end of each course and we take into consideration their feedback when soliciting new courses.

6) How do you respond to those who believe the resources devoted to the Prisoner’s Education Program should be diverted elsewhere? Particularly to programs that focus on those victimized by criminal activity?

While we would never argue for this program over other types of programs, especially those focused on victims, we believe that this program positively contributes to common goals of reducing recidivism and providing education and opportunity to those who have been neglected by the system. We believe that this program is simply one more in a larger effort to reform the prison system, ensure the safety of our communities, and provide educational opportunities for all.