In the mid-1990s when an act of Congress and subsequent state legislation caused the collapse of taxpayer-funded college programs in most state prisons, a few faculty members at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, led by Professor Pete Wetherbee, undertook to offer a handful of classes on a volunteer basis in Auburn Correctional Facility. In 1999, Cornell enabled these college classes to be given for credit, charging neither tuition nor fees. In 2009, with a two-year seed grant from the Sunshine Lady Foundation and additional support from the Provost’s office, Cornell greatly expanded the prison education program.
The Cornell Prison Education Program provides a liberal arts curriculum leading to an associate of arts degree for men incarcerated at the Auburn and Cayuga Correctional Facilities. Many of the participants in the program are African Americans. Cornell faculty and doctoral students serve as instructors for all courses. The program offers nearly a dozen courses each semester in fields such as economics; constitutional law and individual rights; creative writing; genetics; medical anthropology; international human rights; writing; and mathematics.
This December, Cornell will hold its second graduation ceremony at the Auburn Correctional Facility. Twelve men are scheduled to receive their associate’s degrees.