BY JIM SMITH
Russell Perkins ’09 was a high school student in Evanston, Illinois when the Anthony Porter case changed Illinois law. It changed Perkins’ life, as well.
Convicted, in the 1980s, of murdering two Chicago teenagers, Porter had been sentenced to death. Thanks to multiple appeals, however, he was still alive in 1998 when an investigation by students in a Northwestern University journalism class produced compelling evidence that he had not committed the crime.
The case fueled the debate over capital punishment, and an international coalition of individuals and organizations petitioned then-Governor George Ryan to end the death penalty in Illinois. When another man confessed to the crime for which Porter had spent more than a decade behind bars – during which time he had once dodged death by only hours – Porter was exonerated and released. And Ryan, though he remained a supporter of capital punishment on principle, acquiesced to public pressure and issued a moratorium on executions in the state.
The case piqued Perkins’ interest and over the next few years he educated himself about not only capital punishment, but a host of other issues concerning the corrosive impact of incarceration in America’s often over-crowded prisons. When he arrived in Middletown in the autumn of 2005 it didn’t take him long to discover a cadre of upper- classmen who shared his interest.
“For several years before I came to Wesleyan they had been volunteering, bringing educational resources to Connecticut prisons,” says Perkins, now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. “They were passionately committed to rethinking who gets access to educational opportunity.”
Many studies conducted over the past decade have, indeed, demonstrated a mea- surable decline in recidivism rates among prisoners who participated in higher
education programs while incarcerated. A comprehensive analysis of 14 different stud- ies, completed by the Institute for Higher Education Policy in 2005 on behalf of the Department of Justice, showed that prison- ers who simply participated in postsecondary education while in prison were nearly 50 percent less likely to become repeat offenders than were members of the general prison population.
As a freshman, Perkins began making weekly trips to the Cheshire (Connecticut) Correctional Institution, where he led a seminar on literature and philosophy for small groups of prisoners. Opened nearly 100 years ago, Cheshire Correctional Institution is an imposing hulk of a build- ing, corralled with barbed wire. It’s a maximum security prison housing almost 1,500 inmates. Many have committed extremely serious crimes, for which they may spend the rest of their lives behind bars. But even among those the Wesleyan students dis- covered a thirst for knowledge.
“We always called ourselves facilitators, not teachers,” says Perkins. “I certainly learned as much as the prisoners did. Those were some of the best seminar groups I was involved in at Wesleyan.
“Television and popular media instill in us so many hollow stereotypes about prison- ers. In retrospect I should not have been as surprised as I was to find myself in a unique community of people who were highly moti- vated to learn, ask questions, and participate in serious academic study, but who had few academic resources available to them.
“They were an extremely diverse group,” he adds. “They came from a wide range of backgrounds and brought to the seminars varied life experiences. Many had very little formal education, but they used their time in prison to educate themselves.”
By the time Perkins was a senior he had become a leader in the program and, along with Molly Birnbaum ’09, Alexis “Lexi” Sturdy ’10 and others, spearheaded collaboration with faculty and administrators that resulted in creation of the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education (CPE). The group obtained a grant of nearly $200,000 from the Bard Prison Initiative, a Bard College program that offers courses in some New York prisons. With that funding, they began a year-long effort to engage the Wesleyan community.
“Making the CPE happen required a vote of the faculty, as well as an extensive administrative approval process,” explains Perkins. “We spent the entire 2008-2009 year meeting virtually every faculty member one-on-one, sometimes more than once, to explain what the program proposed to do.” In May 2009 the faculty voted overwhelmingly to support the initiative and the CPE was launched as a two-year pilot program. It began offering courses at the Cheshire prison that September.
While Wesleyan offers prisoners an opportunity to earn college credits free of charge, admission is no cakewalk. Past criminal behavior is not taken into consideration, but academic potential is rigorously evaluated. Prospective students must demonstrate aptitude and commitment, write several essays, submit to an interview and have graduated from high school or have a GED. Of the 120 inmates who applied last year, just 19 made the cut.
After graduating, Perkins stayed on at Wesleyan for a year to coordinate the new program, a process he describes as “very challenging, but also very rewarding.” Part of his responsibilities included finding faculty members to teach courses at the prison. Though he knew them all by then and his powers of persuasion were a matter of record, he still met with some resistance.
“Russell talked me into it,” says Professor of History Emeritus Richard Buel. “Frankly, I was nervous and I thought I didn’t belong in that setting.”
It is, after all, an environment “exuding anxiety,” says Lori Gruen, Chair of the Philosophy Department. Like Buel, she says Perkins actively recruited her. And even though she’d had previous experience teaching in women’s prisons she was at first reluctant.
But after teaching History of Political Philosophy to a group of men who, Gruen says, “come to class prepared to be engaged,” she is grateful to Perkins for lobbying her. “This work has reinvigorated my commitment to the power philosophy can have in opening people’s minds,” she says.
And when Buel visited the prison and watched a class, he was sufficiently impressed by the prisoners’ enthusiasm to sign on. “These guys have very little in their lives besides this program,” he says.
When he taught his Survey of American Intellectual History he found the task of exposing his students to “the enormous complexity of our culture as it has evolved over three and a half centuries” less of a challenge than he’d imagined, even though many of the prisoners had no previous formal exposure to history. “It gave many of them a personal context in our nation’s history,” he says.
Associate Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Mike McAlear found himself up against substantial impediments teaching Chemistry in the Modern World in a setting where students have no access to a laboratory or the Internet, and limited access to the prison’s modest library. Yet, he says, “They were engaged and attentive and they asked questions.
“This experience made me look at all of my students differently and made me see my material from a fresh perspective,” he adds. “Education can be very exciting when you have an opportunity to make a significant difference.”
Last spring the University faculty voted overwhelmingly to reapprove the CPE, extending the program for a five-year period and mandating that it continue to grow, admitting new cohorts of 18-20 students per year. According to Sturdy, who took over as CPE Fellow last year when Perkins left, the program has raised more than $140,000 to support itself at least through the current year, though fundraising will remain a high priority.
“This program is a successful effort to democratize access to educational opportunity while also reducing crime and reincarceration,” Sturdy says. She adds that the program aims to build on its success by doubling the number of inmates participating at Cheshire and expanding to include York Prison, a women’s prison in Niantic, Connecticut. “Our ultimate vision is comprehensive access to college throughout the Connecticut prison system,” she says.
Perkins, currently studying philosophy, politics and economics, says he wants to pur- sue a Ph.D. in philosophy and hopes to teach. Though he doesn’t plan to embark upon a career in prison reform, he remains involved with the CPE, an experience he describes as one of the most important in his life.
“The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other nation,” he says. “When you consider, in the context of our current state and federal deficits that reducing by half the number of non-violent offenders in our nation’s prisons would save nearly $17 billion a year, it’s easy to see how wasteful prison is.
“My work with the CPE made that clear and it also showed me just how deeply inequitable access to education is in the United States. As important as it may be to hold individuals accountable for crime, incar- ceration can be an enormously destructive experience, and one that disproportionately impacts those who are already most disadvantaged in society. With the CPE we’re showing how much we all stand to gain when we include those same individuals in our academic community.”
To learn more about the Center for Prison Education and learn how you can help this program achieve its goals, visit the website – http://www.wesleyan.edu/cpe/. PROFILES