The Cornell Prison Education Program was established to provide college courses to inmates at a maximum and medium security prison in upstate New York, and to engage Cornell faculty and students with the vital issue of the country's burgeoning incarceration population. In the mid-1990s when an act of Congress and subsequent state legislation caused the collapse of taxpayer-funded College programs in most state prisons - a move undertaken despite ample evidence that education reduces recidivism by more than 60% - a few faculty members, led by Professor Pete Wetherbee, undertook to offer a handful of classes on a volunteer basis in Auburn Correctional Facility. In 1999, Cornell enabled these college classes to be given for credit, charging neither tuition nor fees.
In 2009, with a two-year seed grant from the Sunshine Lady Foundation and additional support from the Provost's office, Cornell has now greatly expanded the prison education program. Twelve courses are offered each semester. The classes are taught by volunteer faculty and by graduate students who receive a small stipend. The classes are also supported by an exceptional group of forty undergraduate tutors/teaching assistants.
The expanded program is designed to lead to an associates degree, through a consortium linking Cornell University, Cayuga Community College, Auburn Correctional Facility, and Cayuga Correctional Facility. The largely liberal arts curriculum has ranged across classes in the natural sciences, humanities an dsocial sciences. This past year, the offerings included very popular classes in genetics, biology, Constitutional Law, Internaitonal Human Rights, Anthropology of Japan, Representation in Hip-Hop & Political Thought, Shakespeare, Economics, Medical Anthropology, theatre, and a timely writing class being taught both on the Cornell campus and at Auburn on Pirates and State Power - to name only a few of the classes. The program also has designed both math and college preparatory classes to prepare students not yet admitted to the program for the College classes. The program has received vital support from the Office of Land Grant Affairs headed by Ron Seeber and staffed by Carin Rundle, as well as Continuing Education and Summer Sessions staff Cathy Pace and Lisa Schutt, and University Business Center staff Lisa Yeier and Sherry Thompson.
The Program has also run a speaker series in the evenings at Auburn featuring prominent Cornell faculty and administrators that has begun to foster a sense of vibrant academic community within the prison. The series has included the astronomer, Yervant Terzian, Cornell's Deputy Provost David Harris and President David Skorton, ethnomusicologist Steven Pond, visiting AD White Professor Marcus Rediker, and historian Jefferson Cowie.
In the 2008-2009 academic year, nearly 200 eligible men at Auburn Correctional Facility sat for the program's entrance exam. Of the 117 men who enjoyed courses this past year, 86 completed the spring term, and 38 were identified as 'full-time' students eligible to enroll in 3-4 courses concurrently for each semester until completing all requirements for the associates degree to be conferred by Cayuga Community College.