Wednesday, August 15, 2012 12:00 am, Michael Harris, Ithaca Times
In 1995, the federal law — Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — dismantled higher education in prison by eliminating inmate eligibility for Pell Grants.
On June 5, however, the Auburn Prison, in conjunction with Cornell University’s Prison Education Program, celebrated its first graduating class since 1995 with 15 inmates receiving associates degrees from the State University of New York.
Philanthropist Doris Buffet, founder of the Sunshine Lady Foundation, filled the monetary void left by the 1995 legislation, and she became the benefactor for these aspiring scholar inmates at Auburn prison. With her support, in 2008, CPEP was formally established, headed by Executive Director Jim Schechter and PEP’s faculty director, professor Robert Turgeon.
CPEP offers offers up to 17 classes each semester for up to 100 men at Auburn and Cayuga Correctional facilities. Courses available include but are not limited to genetics, poetry, economics, and medical anthropology. A dozen Cornell faculty members and graduate students actually teach the classes, aided by 40-50 undergraduate tutors and teaching assistants; all but the graduate students, who receive a small stipend, teach voluntarily. The students receive college credits for the classes upon successful completion of the coursework.
CPEP not only acts as proctor and facilitators but they are also are aiding in building the character traits necessary to overcome the obstacles placed before ex-offenders when returning to “free” society.
According to Schechter, an important goal of CPEP is to produce more well-rounded men.
“CPEP works to support students’ academic ambitions on the inside so they have the opportunity to live more productive lives while confined and upon release,” he said. “Sustained immersion in coursework offers students the possibility to refine their communication skills, analytical ability and academic skills,
while situating themselves in a wider world that allows them to reflect on their own lives through different lenses.
“Such a process contributes to their self-esteem, imparting a degree of confidence in their decision-making and ability to negotiate everyday life, irrespective of whether they are scheduled for parole in the short-term or have long sentences to serve,” he added.
Though the majority of the graduates still have time remaining on their sentences, when they do become eligible for parole, the mountain of re-entry into society will be a steep climb.
Ray Roe was incarcerated 1985, facing the prospect of a 46-year imprisonment term on robbery and burglary convictions. In 2001, he was one of the first-ever CPEP students (before it was formally known by that name) and the faculty consisted solely of professor Winthrop Wetherbee and a few Cornell volunteers.
Paroled seven years later in 2008, Roe was hopeful he’d have the opportunity to use his educational experience as a tool to ease his re-entry into society. Although optimistic, Roe felt many factors were potential hindrances.
“Keep in mind, prison environment is rigidly structured,” he said. “We do not have to balance a checking account, manage our monthly bills or invest for the future. We cannot earn an income, therefore, we are dependent upon the state.
“So once released, we have very little saved, no money paid into social security, no 401k, and all of a sudden you need virtually everything. I needed a place to stay, but once you move in, you have no cleaning supplies, food, cosmetics, curtains, furniture, dishes, and you get the picture,” Roe added. “If I didn’t
have family, I would have been tormented with poverty … it took three months to find a job because no one would hire me because I was a felon.”
In time he became a hard-working, responsible employee, but it was no easy task carrying his incarceration stigma around.
“Everyone in prison is aware of the public’s sentiment against us. We read the papers, listen to political rhetoric threatening get tough policies against criminals. So I did not reveal any more than I had to in the beginning with my coworkers …,” Roe said. “The criminal justice system is set up to ascertain the guilty,
render justice and distribute just desserts. But once the sentence ends, the collateral consequences continue to punish.
“I can never own a handgun ‘to protect myself,’ even if I have never used one illegally. I am an open target for job discrimination every time I check ‘prior felony,’” he added. “Drug offenders can never receive federal assistance for college. The list goes on, but society seems to tell us to play by the rules though our
sentences will never end.”
It took more than a college education for Roe to avoid falling victim to the 41 percent recidivism rate in New York state; that’s compared to a rate of 26 percent in New York City and 34 percent nationwide.
The odds seemed stacked against him, chief among them finding employment as an ex-con among employers who cannot or won’t hire felons. The pageantry of the recent CPEP graduation at Auburn could be cause for a false sense of security for the inmate scholars.
As Roe has already experienced, the diplomas handed out in June would be enough ammunition to combat traditional “glass ceilings” faced by citizens without a compromised past. Ex-offenders, however, face a more restrictive future that limits opportunity, leading to apathy and a feeling of second-class citizenship.
The Cornell Prison Education Program, though, did help Roe feel inspired to dream beyond what is the norm for ex-cons.
“When Cornell came into Auburn to help us become better people, it helped uplift our spirits. No one wants to remain someone shunned by society. Most of us want to become better people,” he said. “Many of us come from poverty, fractured homes, abuse, addiction and a lack of graduating at anything. Then Ivy League professionals tell us they believe we can change, and put their efforts where their ideas were.
“Everyone has the right to change, and Cornell is helping us to become more than just a burden behind bars. I am so grateful to all those involved,” Roe added. “Receiving an ‘A’ on a Cornell paper burned the daring inspiration that I can become who I wish to be. ”
Roe was granted early release from his parole in 2011 and has remained gainfully employed at Harris Assembly Group since February 2009. He also now serves on the CPEP Board and speaks regularly at Broome County Community College to criminal justice students about the significance of education in the penal system’s rehabilitation process, and the importance of attention to the re-entry issue.
He wants to be a voice of hope for the recent graduating class of inmate scholars while continuing to advocate against legislation and/or public policy disabling the ex-offender’s re-entry attempt.
“I have always been puzzled by the message given by prohibiting us from voting once released. How do you expect someone to embrace the social contract without rewarding inclusion?” Roe said. “I am ruled by American law, taxed accordingly, and told I am of such lowly character, I can no longer participate as a citizen, yet should I violate the law again, the terms will be much stiffer.
“My viewpoint simply questions the messages sent by discouraging citizenship,” he added. “You cannot promote exclusion you should rather promote inclusion.”
On the barriers to ex-felons’ finding housing, work, and educational opportunities, Schechter said, “These barriers are unsupportive of the goal of productive re-entry.”
New York state instituted New York Correction Law Article 23-A, in 2009, making it illegal to bar a person from employment or professional licensure based on past convictions. Conversely, it remains one of the 48 states that chooses to only conditionally restore voting rights for felons when they are released from prison and complete the conditions of their parole. Maine and Vermont are the only states to allow all felons to maintain this critical voice as a citizen without provision.
No matter what legislative action is taken or funds granted to give prisoners access to education, the human factor has become a key in assisting ex-offenders in building bridges to fruitful citizenship.
“One of my proudest moments doing this work was seeing him (Roe) speak on re-entry to a course at Broome Community College,” Schecter said. “It wasn’t that I knew Ray inside. I didn’t, or that I had anything to do with his personal successes. It was simply knowing the kind of people that merit second chances, like Ray.”