Different Worlds Converge as College Students and Inmates Meet in a Prison Classroom

Article excerpt

During the 2008 and 2009 fall semesters, 10 students from Vassar College, a private, liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., drove an hour to Taconic Correctional Facility, a medium-security women's prison in Bedford Hills, N.Y., once a week to join inmates to learn about sociology--and life.

The two-and-a-half-hour weekly mixed class at the facility was the first in a New York state prison and could serve as a pilot for others in the state--and perhaps in other states as well. At the Recognition Day ceremony held each year in the multipurpose room of Taconic to honor all the students who successfully completed academic courses at the facility, one student from Vassar and one from Taconic spoke about their course, "Gender, Social Problems and Social Change." In 2008, Kya Finn, the student chosen by her Taconic classmates, challenged her Vassar classmates and others present to extend the benefits of the course to others:

  This program is important for inmates, but it is more important for
  outsiders, so we can refute the preconceived notions of what a
  criminal is," Finn said. "I am anintellectual; I am a mother, sister
  and daughter, and my classmates are as well. Do not let us fall by
  the wayside. Utilize this program to reevaluate and, where,
  necessary, change the rehabilitative process.

Picking up on Finn's call, this article describes the course and the kinds of issues that Vassar and the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) considered in deciding to go ahead with this experiment. The course required much thought and effort, but in the eyes of all concerned, it has been a resounding success and well worth the commitment of the time and resources it entailed.

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BACKGROUND OF THE COURSE

The "Gender, Social Problems and Social Change" course was born out of the curiosity and determination of Vassar sociology professor Eileen Leonard and political science professor Mary L. Shanley. They heard about Temple University's Inside-Out program in Philadelphia, which trains faculty to offer college courses enrolling students from both inside and outside prison. They enrolled in the training program and began to investigate educational programs in correctional facilities in New York state. While there are several degree-granting programs and individual courses offered in New York state prisons, DOCS had not previously allowed students from the outside to study alongside those on the inside.

Taconic Correctional Facility appeared to be an excellent place to try a pilot program to see if a mixed classroom would be educationally valuable and feasible without compromising security. A medium-security women's facility, Taconic carried lower security concerns than a maximum-security prison. Courses through both Mercy College and Nyack College, and College Connections, a program directed by Gina Shea and Johanna Foster that offers precollege and college courses in math and English, were already in place to prepare women for the proposed Vassar course. DOCS Commissioner Brian Fischer was supportive, as were Taconic's superintendents, Sabina Kaplan and her predecessor, Dolores Thornton.

"Education and positive social interaction are both critical to offenders' ability to readjust successfully to the community after prison--and to cope during incarceration," Fischer said. "This program brought the best of both worlds to the participating offenders at Taconic Correctional Facility. It is clear that those offenders, as well as the participating Vassar students, learned a great deal not only academically but also about understanding and accepting others' points of view."

ANTICIPATED DIFFICULTIES AND FACTORS THAT PROMOTED THE SUCCESS OF THE COURSE

Nevertheless, DOCS and Taconic Correctional Facility officials grappled with significant issues before approving the mixed class. Primary among these was security. …