NY State alliance designed to close gaps in prison education system

Cornell's prison education programs encourage the development of critical analysis and intellectual development.
Cornell’s prison education programs encourage the development of critical analysis and intellectual development.

For anyone imprisoned, the possibility of a transfer can be very disruptive emotionally; after spending years in the same facility you become accustomed to the same faces and routines. But the impact can be far more serious when an individual is in the process of completing an education program when it happens. A student may find that they’ve lost credits; someone who has nearly completed a degree over many years may suddenly find they’re forced to start all over again. The result for many is that their efforts are completely derailed and some cases, abandoned altogether. Yet it’s a factor that very few (if any) institutions take into account when organizing such moves.

It’s a serious crack in the system that has widespread ramifications for anti-recidivism efforts and one of the reasons that several of the top prison education providers in New York State have formed the New York Consortium for Higher Education in Prison (NYCHEP). Guiding the creation of the alliance was the recognition of precisely the kind of difficulties students in prison face in ensuring the transferability of credits when changing facilities.

One of the members of the new consortium is Cornell’s Prison Education program, a highly respected provider of quality university-level education to New York prisons. Cornell (along with other institutions like NYU) have been at the fore of implementing innovative college instruction programs, providing one of the best examples of effective quality prison education; their prison educators include some of the best thinkers in their respective fields. Unfortunately, because of budgetary constraints (they are donor-funded) the program is limited to accepting but a few students each year (though they hope that the recently announced changes to the Pell Grant system may help improve that situation); only about 10% of those who apply are accepted. And so for this institution it’s particularly important that when a student is transferred out of their program that their efforts are not laid to waste.

But even with the high quality level of the instruction and curriculum provided through Cornell, along with fellow NYCHEP members, they all recognized that these benefits are seriously hindered in the absence of a continuity of standards throughout all organizations that serve the prison community. They have joined with these other groups to work towards “streamlining” the system and achieve a degree of universality and standardization common to them all. Doing so will not only assist students while incarcerated, but also allow them to transition into formalized education programs upon release. It will also allow better measurement and tracking of student needs and outcomes, all of which will assist program developers.

The process has only just begun, but it’s a critical development and the timing could not be more critical. With the impending changes to Pell Grants meaning possible funding shifts to the federal level, it will be more important than ever for organizations to be able to demonstrate continuity in terms of quality and accreditation 

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