Working with the Incarcerated

For several years now, Wesleyan students, faculty and staff have been working with incarcerated people in Connecticut state prisons. With all the post-election tumult, it is important to remember that there has been an emerging consensus from various parts of the political spectrum to end mass incarceration. Now there is political work to be done to ensure that “law and order” rhetoric not evolve into policies that continue to decimate communities of color while benefiting private prison companies. And there is educational work to be done. Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education is bringing resources to incarcerated men and women who learn together with their teachers and mentors.

Recently the Ford Foundation awarded Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education a $300,000 grant to continue its important work. The people at Ford recognized the dedication of the students who founded the program, along with the talents and energy of the teachers and supporting staff who bring a first-rate liberal education to men and women behind bars. This grant will allow us to continue to offer classes, and, in cooperation with Middlesex Community College, offer an Associate’s Degree.

Earlier this semester, I attended part of the Shasha Seminar, which this year was focused on problems of mass incarceration. I heard very moving accounts of working to get prisoners released and of the problems that folks face after they thought they were leaving a life behind bars. I talked with Wesleyan alumni who have been doing this important work for many years, and who now see possibilities for real change. But the most powerful talks I heard were from people who had committed serious crimes and then, through education, turned their lives around. Education, they explained, saved their lives, and now they felt a duty to help others who were struggling.

Isn’t this one of the great effects of liberal education? Experiencing the awakening of one’s own potential through learning, one wants to participate in the education of others. It’s a form of liberation, a way out of the mindset of incarceration.

I am grateful to the Ford Foundation for supporting our work at the Center for Prison Education. The dedication of the folks doing this work is especially admirable in these tumultuous times.

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