Auburn (WSYR-TV) – Lots of students face hurdles on their
way to a college diploma, but few face the challenge that prison presents.
On Tuesday, 15 men at the maximum security Auburn
Correctional Facility earned their associates’ degrees, temporarily trading
their prison uniforms for caps and gowns.
The inmates earned Cornell credits while working toward a
degree awarded by Cayuga Community College.
“You can make a choice to be part of the system and let it
shape you, or you can actually turn that on its head and shape yourself and
turn the rest of the system,” said degree recipient, Gary LaRocca.
LaRocca obtained his degree after five years of work, others
labored for more than a decade – beginning their education even before the
degree program existed at the school.
“It is a challenge,” said Auburn Correctional Facility
Superintendent, Harold Graham. “If you just talk to the instructors, they’ve
seen such a huge change amongst the graduates in their own personal life….it
gives them a sense of accomplishment and in some cases it’s the first thing
they’ve ever accomplished.”
Most of the courses are taught at the facility by Cornell
faculty and graduate students. None of the funding for the program comes from
the state. Cornell and Cayuga Community College collaborate on the program,
along with Sunshine Lady Foundation founder Doris Buffett, sister of investor
and philanthropist Warren Buffett.
“It’s such a joy…a really deep joy to see somebody be able
to change their life around and that’s what we want,” Buffett said. “I’m
investing in people and I think that’s a good investment.”
Although some of the men will never see a life beyond bars,
some supporters say the program can still make a difference.
“On the inside, it means people can remain productive, have
a better sense of self esteem, have a capacity for communication and an ability
to live out their lives to the fullest potential,” said Jim Schechter of
Cornell Prison Education Program.
LaRocca admits he’s made a few bad choices. He’s got at
least five more years as an inmate before he’s able to give himself a new start
from a violent burglar to a productive college graduate.
“I’m going to try really hard to go home and get a
bachelor’s and master’s and PhD and do something with my life,” LaRocca said.
The Cornell Prison Education Program has 65 full-time
students. In July, it will accept another 18 out of 150 eligible to take the
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