Non sum qualis eram

From the NYTimes comes this heartwarming story of one of the nation’s elite universities privately funding an educational program in one of CT’s toughest prisons. Starting this year, Wesleyan brings its excellent curriculum and stringent admission requirements to prison, in an effort to educate and rehabilitate inmates, something the State of Connecticut and the DOC  have long given up.

For 19 spots, there were 120 applications, and rightly so. This program presents an unique opportunity: to get a high-level education and to attempt to rebuild one’s life and prepare for an eventual release into a world that won’t acknowledge their existence (for some).  There are several remarkable things about this program. One of them is that the crime of conviction is not a factor in who gets accepted into the program. So whether you’re a murderer or someone who was selling drugs, you have an equal shot at getting accepted. The second feature that struck me was that while there is no guarantee that graduates of this program will get a degree from Wesleyan, they will be entitled to access to career services upon release.

Imagine that! Inmates will have somewhere to go, armed with an education and the possibility of a degree and get assistance in finding a job. The State should be ashamed of itself.

Reading this article, I learned some things about Wesleyan and its tradition and history:

But the university has a long history of civic engagement that traces back to its Methodist roots. It is named after John Wesley, an 18th-century minister who championed prison reform and helping the downtrodden. Two students, Russell Perkins and Molly Birnbaum, who had volunteered in prisons as students, revived the idea last year when they were seniors and figured out a way to finance it.

What’s even more stunning is that this proposal was scheduled for a vote the very same day that a student at Wesleyan was gunned down in a bookstore. The school merely postponed the vote 2 weeks and during that subsequent vote, it was approved. Goes to show you that to recognize that not all “criminals” are the same, you merely have to have your head screwed on straight.

Of course, this brings the usual din of dissent and cries of “wah, you’re helping those scum criminals” from the usual suspects. I don’t have very many good things to say about the State’s victim’s advocate (none, really), so I’ll just quote her and let it speak for itself:

Crime victims and their advocates question whether the investment will be worthwhile. “I appreciate the need to educate offenders, but I’m saddened we don’t spend that kind of money or take that kind of time to rebuild the lives of crime victims,” said Michelle S. Cruz, Connecticut’s independent victim advocate.

Private institution, private funds, state spends enough money on incarceration and “retribution”, blah blah.

Sam Rieger, a Waterbury man whose 19-year-old daughter was murdered by a man now incarcerated at the Cheshire prison, agreed. “This does not make sense to me,” he said of the Wesleyan program. “What is the point?” He said the money should be spent on victims or on trying to help young people make better choices.

I have not met Mr. Rieger, nor do I know who he is, but I understand his sentiment. The point is this: many “young people” are already lost by the time they come to prison. There are programs attempting to help them before they get there, but there are few. In prison, they have nowhere to go. They are, in a sense, forced to be attentive. If this programs takes those same men and provides them with the education that they didn’t receive earlier, what’s the harm? I can only see a benefit to it. Lets not forget that there are well defined roles in prison among the inmates as well. Lifers are usually looked on with some reverence and do carry some amount of clout (or used to, at least). If you educate the ones that are going to be there for a long time, they can pass that on to the young whippersnappers rushing through on their latest tour.

The bottom line, though, is that education can never be a bad thing. Some might argue (including myself) that providing better education to our underprivileged youth might be the best way to attack the crime problem. But I’m just some liberal nut who would love to take these classes at Wesleyan.

(H/T: the local listserve)

3 thoughts on “Non sum qualis eram

  1. gerardw

    It seems somewhat strange that Wesleyan will not actually award degrees to students who finish the program.

    And because I’m a contrarian I’ll dispute the claim the education is never a bad thing: I suspect that the “education” that some inmates get in prison is probably not helpful.

    1. Gideon Post author

      I think the quote is they won’t “necessarily” receive degrees, which in of itself is an odd comment.

      Yes, I’m sure that sort of “education” isn’t helpful, but maybe that get that education because there is nothing else to get. If we provide a substitute, maybe there’s no need for that sort of prison “education”.

      And I know you were just being contrarian 🙂

  2. Elizabeth turner

    FYI- Check out the murder of a michigan woman whose offender had the benefit and privilege of obtaining a BA degree from an Ohio prison only to turn around and murder her and leave her children without a mother. So yes sometimes there is NO reason to educate an offender – the offender may simply be using the education to lure another vicitm into his or her web.


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