Frequently Asked Questions
Funded by the College and operated in collaboration with other area schools, RPEP is a University of Rochester initiative that works to offer college courses to people incarcerated in Western New York, and to educate the greater University of Rochester community about the crisis of mass incarceration.
Strong economic, political, and moral arguments can be made for the value of education in prison. First, education has been shown to effectively reduce recidivism and aid formerly incarcerated people in social reintegration. In many cases, it more than pays for itself: a study by the Washington State Institute of Public Policy found that for every $5,000 invested in prison education, the state saved $20,000 by reducing incarceration rates and the use of social services. Second, education is an intrinsic good that fosters for incarcerated people the prospect of a good life in spite of their conditions. Third, as American citizens, we are at our most complicit with mass incarceration when we allow the rigid barrier between the incarcerated and the free to stand unchallenged. By bridging boundaries and by bringing incarcerated people into our institutional lives, we can whittle away at the dehumanizing invisibility upon which mass incarceration depends.
Rochester has historically been friendly terrain for social justice and civil rights movements. The onetime home of both Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, our city is known for being at the heart of campaigns for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery.
Rochester is also situated in a region with numerous prisons. Within a ninety-minute drive of campus are eleven state and federal correctional facilities: Albion, Attica, Auburn, Five Points, Groveland, Livingston, Orleans, Wende, Wyoming, Buffalo Federal Detention Facility, and Willard Drug Treatment Center. The impact and influence of these institutions extends into the city of Rochester, and into the cultural politics of our campus.
With its talented faculty and students, and its extensive resources, the University of Rochester is especially well suited to engage with the region’s large, yet mostly hidden, prison population, and to inform our community about the challenges incarcerated men and women face both in prison and post-release.
Today, there are about two hundred college-in-prison programs nationwide, some operated by universities and others by non-profit organizations and academic consortia.
Regionally, RPEP is in exceptional company. In New York, several institutions of higher learning are engaged in this effort, including:
- Columbia University
- Cornell University
- New York University
- Bard College
- Hobart & William Smith Colleges
- Nazareth College
- Medaille College
Overall, about one thousand men and women incarcerated in New York are enrolled in individual college courses or in college degree programs.
Outside of New York, many other Research I universities operate prison education programs, including Princeton University, Rutgers University, and Ohio University.
A directory of college-in-prison programs may be found at the Prison Studies Project.
Because the federal government and many states do not offer grants to incarcerated students, most funding for college-in-prison programs comes from philanthropic organizations, individual donors, and universities.
RPEP receives generous support from the University of Rochester School of Arts and Sciences and from our institutional partners.
In August 2017, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced that the state would award $7 million in grants to several colleges and universities that offer courses in prison, including RPEP partners Cornell University and Medaille College. (The University of Rochester is not one of the grantees.) These funds will help make college education more accessible to nearly three thousand incarcerated students at seventeen correctional facilities across the state.
Nationally, incarcerated students seek a range of postsecondary degrees—certificates, associate’s, and bachelor’s—either through in-person instruction or correspondence. Only a tiny handful of universities offer graduate degrees.
Students taught by RPEP instructors are typically working toward an associate degree at a State University of New York community college.
Do courses taught in prison by University of Rochester faculty and graduate students count for University of Rochester credit?
Yes. RPEP students receive credit from our institutional partners, Cornell Prison Education Program, Medaille College, Cayuga Community College or Finger Lakes Community College.
Beginning in the fall of 2018, RPEP’s courses will be offered for University of Rochester credit.
To eliminate as many barriers to higher education as possible, RPEP courses and all related expenses, such as textbooks, are free to students.
University of Rochester faculty and advanced graduate students who are interested in teaching a course at a correctional facility, as well as undergraduates who are interested in serving as a teaching assistant, are strongly encouraged to submit a letter of intent on our get involved page.
RPEP also organizes guest lectures, panel discussions, film screenings, and other events for the university and local community. These events are free, and all are encouraged to attend!
RPEP typically offers four courses per academic year—two in the fall, two in the spring—in area correctional facilities. To date, RPEP instructors have taught courses in anthropology, art history, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy, and religious studies. Future course offerings are likely to include more advanced curricula and be from a wide array of disciplines.
RPEP offers courses in three facilities:
- Five Points Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Romulus, NY, which houses about 1,500 men
- Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Auburn, NY, which houses about 1,800 men
- Albion Correctional Facility, a medium security prison in Albion, NY, which houses about 1,200 women
RPEP’s main office is at the University of Rochester River Campus.
A. At this time, RPEP compensates instructors with a stipend.
All courses RPEP offers are taught as rigorously, and with the same academic expectations, as they are in non-prison contexts. Incarcerated students undertake a workload similar to that of non-incarcerated students, including weekly readings from textbooks and supplementary texts, regular written assignments, and long-term research projects. Some take up to five courses per semester in order to fulfill degree requirements. Class sizes are typically under 16 students.
Courses are subject to the approval of the facility where they are taught. Administrators in the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision maintain discretion over the curricular materials used at their institutions.
Prison pedagogy entails some limitations not typically encountered in other academic settings. For example, prisons do not have Internet access—many do not make computers available to students at all—and may not be able to accommodate A/V media or scientific equipment.
At this time, RPEP does not accept donations of this kind. However, the American Library Association publishes a directory of organizations that do.
Recently, there has been a great deal of in-depth news coverage of and dialogue about higher education in prison. Here are some resources on the topic that may interest you:
(Note: RPEP does not necessarily endorse all viewpoints or information on these sites.)