The first graduating class of Five Points Correctional Facility inmates in the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP) received their degrees to congratulations and cheers at a recent ceremony.
Cayuga Community College, Cornell’s partner in the program, conferred 16 Associate of Arts degrees at the May 24 ceremony in the Romulus, New York, facility’s gymnasium. The event was attended by the graduates’ family members, classmates in the program, educators and corrections officials.
In her commencement address, CPEP instructor and board member Jan Zeserson said, “I want you to know that I saw how you held each other up, I saw how you challenged each other. … I hope you saw how much I learned from you.”
Five Points had never had a college degree-granting program before now, said Rob Scott, executive director of CPEP, which launched the program in 2016 with support from an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant.
“There is a sort of intuitive logic that a prison space would not be compatible with an Ivy League education,” Scott said in his remarks as master of ceremonies. “Our desire to come in here is to disprove that hypothesis and provide a counter-narrative, a counter example. And these gentlemen are that example.”
The degree recipients in the first graduating class at Five Points are Jonathan Amidon, Donnell Baines, Jermaine Barrett, Jeffrey Berkley, Dedric Chislum, Chicko Dillard, Ansel Gouveia, Michael Hesse, Aaron Jarzynka, Jesse Johnston, Corey Kimmy, José Méndez, Richard Paul, Joseph Perez, Chester Wood and Christopher Wood.
They took accredited classes in the liberal arts and sciences, social sciences and humanities, taught by faculty and student teaching assistant volunteers from Cornell, Cayuga CC, Hobart and William Smith (HWS) Colleges, the University of Rochester and Keuka College. HWS volunteers were invited by the prison to begin teaching classes there in 2012.
Zeserson, a courtesy lecturer in Cornell’s East Asia Program, taught an anthropology class and a research seminar at Five Points. Addressing the graduates, she said, “You collectively composed thoughts about what you’d like said today to everyone here. I hope I can do you proud.”
One graduate acknowledged the professors and teaching assistants, Zeserson said, quoting: “‘Being in prison for a long time comes with an unwritten understanding that even strong bonds and loving relationships fade out of our lives as time goes by. That’s just a natural progression in a place like this. But what we were not prepared for was for new people to come into our lives and help us change for the better. That is priceless.’”
Nine Cornell Certificates in Liberal Arts also were awarded, to Berkley, Chislum, Dillard, Jarzynka, Johnston, Méndez and Paul, along with Jonathan M. Istvan and Adam Kitt.
The liberal arts certificate, signifying completion of 18 credits of coursework with Cornell faculty, was created expressly for the Prison Education Program with the approval of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Faculty Senate last summer, Scott said.
Eugene M. Tobin, former Hamilton College president and Mellon Foundation senior program officer for higher education and scholarship in the humanities; Sandra Greene, professor and chair of history at Cornell; Jeff Rosenthal, Cayuga CC vice president of student affairs; and Laurine Jones, deputy superintendent of programs at Five Points, also delivered remarks at the ceremony.
Greene, who directs the certificate program, said she had suggested biographies to Jeffrey Berkley for his research project as part of the certificate requirement. “He was interested in African-Americans in the sciences, and I shared some materials with him on women scientists he didn’t know about – that was a real eye-opener,” she said.
“Professor Greene was not only [a] professor, but a sounding board and a mentor,” Berkley said.
For his project, “A Call to Awareness: How Our Education System Can Obliterate Inequality by Teaching Historical Relevance,” Berkley said, he found examples in Greene’s suggested reading such as Yvonne Young Clarke, who broke race and gender barriers in engineering.
“From the time she was a child, she didn’t go along with the ’40s and ’50s stereotype of playing with dolls,” Berkley said. With the support and guidance of parents and teachers, he said, “you can’t help but become a productive human being and a forward-thinking person.”
He praised the prison education program for “not just what I get out of it, but what we collectively get out of it. It’s been the most rewarding experience of my time here.”