Hartford Foundation Supports Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education with $5,000 Grant

By Christopher Zoukis

On March 11, 2013 the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving announced their awarding of a $5,000 grant to Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education.  This most generous grant, which was made possible through the Beatrice Fox Auerbach Foundation Fund at the Hartford Foundation, will sustain Wesleyan University’s prison education outreach through December 9, 2013. 

Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education was founded in Connecticut in 2009 and authorized as a two-year pilot program.  The program initiated at the women’s York Correctional Institution, and later expanded to the men’s Cheshire Correctional Institution.  Both prisons are a part of the Connecticut Department of Corrections.  In 2011, the Center for Prison Education was reauthorized to provide services for an additional five years.  This was due to the resounding success of the program, both from the incarcerated student’s perspective and that of Wesleyan University’s perspective. 

The prison education program at Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut has offered full classes to the male incarcerated students, while it has operated in a more limited capacity at Connecticut’s York Correctional Institution.  Due to both program’s tremendous successes, the Center for Prison Education hopes to offer full credit classes to the women at York Correctional Institution by the end of the year.  “We were inspired by the women at York,” said Alexis Sturdy, a fellow at the Center for Prison Education.  “We wanted to bridge the gap with full classes.”

The Center For Prison Education is quite a remarkable program.  Privately funded by individual donations and grants from foundations, it does not use the aid of tuition dollars, state or federal funding to support the prison education program.  And by not costing the school, the students, or the taxpayers any money, it is easy to rally behind.

The selection process to gain entrance into Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education is anything but simple and seats are highly sought after.  An example from their first cohort shows just how much program participation was valued by the pool of potential incarcerated participants: when first offered, in 2009, 115 male prisoners applied for 18 seats.

One of those applicants was Antonio Rivera, a then 25-year-old Connecticut state inmate.  In October of 2011, Mr. Rivera was the first incarcerated student to be released after participating in the Center for Prison Education program and is now enrolled at the University of Connecticut, where he is studying urban and community studies.  Program participation is valued because it offers a key to a life outside of the realm of the American criminal justice system.  Mr. Rivera realized something on the day he applied for admission to the Center for Prison Education.  He realized that if he was going to turn his life around, he needed a new set of skills.  And the avenue for skill attainment he chose was education.  If he hadn’t done so, who knows where he would be today. 

The Center for Prison Education requires incarcerated students to possess either a GED or a high school diploma, and to have a minimum of two years remaining on their sentence to qualify for program participation.  The nature of the conviction is not a factor in applicant selection.  After application is made, incarcerated students must sit for a three-hour writing exam where they write an essay based on an academic quote which is furnished by Wesleyan University staff.

After the first cut, 50 students are selected and directed to write a new essay that they have a week to complete.  Thereafter, the remaining incarcerated applicants are called in for personal interviews with Wesleyan University staff.  This second set of essays and the accompanying personal interviews are what Wesleyan University staff use to make the final selection of incarcerated participants (though the administration at each prison has final approval on any selected incarcerated applicant).

The programs are taught by Wesleyan University professors, who are assisted by Wesleyan University student volunteers.  The students assist with workshops and tutoring.  Each semester two classes are offered to incarcerated students.  In addition to the two classes, incarcerated students are required to participate in three study halls throughout the week.  In total, incarcerated students spend between seven and nine hours a week in study and instruction.

For those of us in the prison education advocacy realm, it’s all about the light in our students’ eyes when they feel they have achieved something.  Or, as Madeleine Neufeld, a senior American studies major and volunteer who assists with an associated college prep workshop, says, “My experience with the men has been nothing but positive.  The classroom offers a unique environment to share stories of where we came from and our diverse experiences.  Through the program, the men are able to empower themselves to realize where they can go in the future.”

The staff of PrisonEducation.com fully support programs such as the one offered by Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education.  We applaud the Hartford Foundation for their remarkable support of such a worthy cause.  The $5,000 grant will go to more than just supporting a few professors and purchasing materials, it will facilitate hope.  It is this hope, as all of those behind bars know, that will sustain any prisoners through the long years away from family and friends, and will drive them to do more with their lives.  God willing, this hope will drive them to be law abiding, productive American citizens.

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