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Freeing the Mind from Prison

Posted on Wednesday, July 03, 2013

At a small ceremony held at the Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, N.Y., Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science John Vaughn and Associate Professor of English Laurence Erussard were presented with a plaque in the shape of an apple, and a handwritten note that read: "Thank you for changing the image we have of ourselves."

The ‘graduation' ceremony was the conclusion of the spring semester's HWS Educational Second Chances Program, which provides inmates at the facility with the opportunity to enroll in a college-level course within the walls of the maximum-security prison.

"It's very beneficial for the inmates," says Erussard. "They are able to be part of a larger intellectual community and academic identity."

Spearheaded by Gideon Porter '12, Hobart and William Smith is the only college or university to hold classes at the correctional facility -and just the third in the state to offer a prison education outreach program. Erussard has instructed "Introduction to European Studies" and "History of the English Language," and will teach her popular course on Chaucer this fall.

Alternatively, inmates can explore mathematics with Vaughn, who has been a major supporter of the program since its inception. Vaughn offers 100 and 110 level mathematics courses.

The new program, which began last fall, has already seen great progress. Comprised of volunteer organizers, professors and students, Erussard says the experience has been a rewarding one, and that the inmates are very grateful for the opportunity to take college courses.

"That was incredibly moving notion," says Erussard. "They really are very excited to be learning and are extremely dedicated. Many of them have told me that the three hours they spend in class are the best three hours of their week."

The class itself is selective, involving an application process that requires inmates to have clean behavior records within the prison. Applicants must hold a GED or a high school diploma, and the program targets those who have not had the benefit of an extensive or enriching education. Inmates are also required to take an entry exam prepared by Erussard; in the end, only 18 are accepted into each class - and no inmate can take more than one class at a time.

"Reading the application essays is very powerful," explains Erussard, who finds similar sentiments throughout many of the highly personal reflections. "So many write, ‘this is the only thing I can do to give a good example to my children and my grandchildren.'"

Each semester, Erussard teaches two sections of the same course at both the Colleges and the prison in an effort to foster communication between her students and the inmates. Through written responses to readings and lectures, the students and inmates are able to engage in a thoughtful and meaningful dialogue.

"Students are always impressed with the responses written by the inmates," says Erussard. "Both sides take these assignments seriously and provide insightful reflections."

Upon completion of the course, students are given a certificate during a ceremony, as well as an HWS folder, which Erussard says they are incredibly proud to display.

In the fall, Associate Professor of Religious Studies Richard Salter will join Erussard and Vaughn when he instructs his popular course "Reinventing Jesus," as will Assistant Professor of General Curriculum James McCorkle who will teach "Africana Studies." The spring will see further expansion of the program, with the inclusion of Professor of Art and Architecture Phillip Yi's "Introduction to Drawing" course.

The program's future will also include several collaborations including one with Assistant Professor of Psychology James Sutton, whose work focuses on criminology. Sutton hopes to generate knowledge of the program on campus with talks, movies and projects within his classes.

 


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