Education, it has long been recognized, is an invaluable tool for empowerment, reducing recidivism rates, and making communities safer.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 made federal scholarships and loans available to incarcerated students, leading to the growth of college-in-prison programs in the United States. Within two decades of the law’s passage, 350 programs were thriving, providing postsecondary education to more than 27,000 incarcerated men and women nationwide—about nine percent of the total prison population at that time. As Senator Claiborne Pell, the federal grants’ namesake, said in 1994, “Education is our primary hope for rehabilitating prisoners. Diplomas are crime stoppers.” That very year, however, as part of the 1994 Crime Bill, incarcerated students were made ineligible for Pell. With states following the federal government’s lead, most of the country’s college-in-prison programs disappeared.
After two decades of retraction, college-in-prison is enjoying a revival of interest and institutional support. In New York alone, more than a dozen universities and colleges now offer courses in many of the state’s fifty-four correctional facilities. Disproportionately, however, these efforts are located downstate. As is true for most of the country’s prisoners, men and women incarcerated in upstate and western New York remain underserved. The tailwinds are strong, but we have a long way to go.
With support of the College of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Rochester Prison Education Project was established in 2016. RPEP currently operates in partnership with the Cornell Prison Education Program, Cayuga Community College, and Medaille College at Albion Prison, but we are actively taking steps to work toward our eventual independence.
Since RPEP's founding in 2016, University of Rochester faculty and graduate students have taught thirteen courses at three area correctional facilities: Five Points, Auburn, and Albion. Courses have spanned a range of humanistic and STEM disciplines, including anthropology, art history, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy, and religious studies. On campus, meanwhile, RPEP has sponsored a variety of public events with a variety of community partners, including the George Eastman Museum, the Gandhi Institute, the Susan B. Anthony Institute, and the Friends of Mt. Hope Cemetery.