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Maximum-Security College

John Abbarno ought to be the envy of college professors everywhere. It's only the second week of his survey course on philosophy, but already, his undergraduate students are deeply engaged in the class material. Many, in fact, have charged ahead into the next week's reading for the pure pleasure of it.

As class begins, the group dives eagerly into Plato's "Euthyphro," and the room becomes thick with hands in the air. Comments and questions are provocative and demonstrate a sure grasp of the material.

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But a closer look at the classroom, with its three-foot-thick walls and heavily barred windows, though, reveals that this is no ordinary group of students.

The cramped and slightly shabby room lies in the heart of New York's Attica Correctional Facility, one of America's most infamous maximum-security prisons. The 24 class members, attired in the drab green of prison garb, are all convicted felons.

Dr. Abbarno has been teaching in prisons for 21 years and for him, there's nothing out of the ordinary about tonight's class. He says intellectual excitement and a high energy level are the norm in prison classes. After all, there is plenty of time for study and almost no distractions.

But what is not routine for him is the uncomfortable feeling that, unless a new funding source is found, these classes will cease sometime next year.

The Niagara Consortium - a small confederation of local colleges that for 24 years has been offering college classes at Attica and two other nearby prisons - has been struggling for the past few years to scrape together enough private money to keep the program alive. But the battle is an uphill one, and administrators fear the fight may soon be over.

And if the lights go out at the Niagara Consortium, there will be few such college-degree programs left in any US prisons, and very little teaching of liberal-arts classes to adult inmates.

The disappearance of programs like the Niagara Consortium is part of a larger debate about the merits of allowing inmates to take college classes.

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In 1994, a national debate erupted over the use of federal Pell Grants to fund college classes for inmates who, many argued, should be punished, not given a liberal-arts education at taxpayer expense. As part of an omnibus crime bill, Congress voted to discontinue use of the grants for prisoners, and many states followed suit by cutting off tuition help to inmates.

The results were dramatic. According to the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture in New York, while in 1990 there were 350 higher-education programs nationally for inmates, by 1997 there were eight. Some programs, like the Niagara Consortium, have managed to limp along with private funding, but for most the going has been rough.

In the meantime, the debate over whether college classes for inmates are an absurd luxury or a powerful rehabilitative measure continues to rage unresolved. As a result, college education in the prisons has not entirely disappeared, but what remains is limited.

Restrictions limit classes

A handful of states continue to fund post-secondary education for inmates, and a recent reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 will provide an additional $12 million for the education of adult inmates this fall, to be divided among states interested in participating. But virtually all funding will be restricted to vocational and business education.

That's a sad mistake, say some of the professors who have taught liberal arts in prisons. Classes like Abbarno's, they argue, are among the most successful rehabilitative methods ever tested in prisons, and also offer interesting insights into the relationship between an inadequate education and a life of crime.

"Liberal arts takes you out of yourself and expands horizons. It increases the circle of empathy, and teaches the kinds of cognitive skills people need in order not to commit crimes," says Mary Ellen Batiuk, associate professor of sociology at Wilmington (Ohio) College.

Professor Batiuk has been teaching in prisons for 15 years, as part of a program established by her college in two Ohio prisons in the mid-1970s. But while a few years ago the college offered several hundred classes, today, due to limited funding, there are only a few dozen, and all are technical or business-oriented. Previously it had been possible for inmates to earn degrees from Wilmington, but now, without any liberal-arts classes, degrees can no longer be granted.

Rosanna Warren, an associate professor of English at Boston University, taught poetry in three Massachusetts prisons for 10 years as part of a BU program funded largely by the university. "You see them changing," Professor Warren says of the inmates she taught. "I saw it again and again. They begin to examine their own lives. All sorts of transformations begin to occur."

Exposure to literature, philosophy, and history, she says, causes inmates "to explore more fully what it means to be human. They stop feeling sorry for themselves and begin to imagine the reality of things outside themselves." Liberal arts, she says, offer prisoners a chance to forge a more powerful sense of "connectedness" to the outside world.

Many of the inmates' lives, she notes, have been very chaotic. "The very idea of order, of putting one's thoughts, one's life in order, is a new habit."

But not everyone agrees on the value of that habit. "Education for prisoners is not the silver bullet," says Jim Flateau, spokesman for the Department of Correctional Services in New York State.

He points out, "We're not talking about large numbers." At the height of college offerings in New York state prisons, Mr. Flateau estimates that only about 3,000 out of 67,000 inmates enrolled in college programs, and no more than 150 to 175 degrees were granted annually.

Flateau agrees that college education for inmates clearly does reduce recidivism rates, but he adds, "So does getting a high school diploma." Helping an inmate get a high school equivalency diploma costs about $400, he says, while state grants to inmates enrolled in college programs were $1,500 per inmate each year. Inmates contend that college classes, because of their depth and breadth, offer a new world view in a way high school studies never could.

A student's view

Ernest Lee, an inmate who recently earned his BS in psychology while at Attica, says liberal-arts studies opened a whole new realm to him. "Before my neighborhood was my world," says Mr. Lee. "Now, I think about world events. I watch 'World News Tonight' and I read The Wall Street Journal. I want to travel and go to museums. These are things I never thought about before."

Lee says his favorite class was a botany class. "It was just so interesting," he remembers. That intense interest in something outside himself, he says, gave him that feeling of "connection" Warren describes.

Felix Laboy, an inmate at Wyoming Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison next to Attica, earned his BS in social science in 1997 and calls his studies "an awakening." The process of reading, thinking, and learning, "alters your whole life style." There have been times, he says, when "I sit with a book and don't come out for three days." As a result, he says, "I carry a torch, a light within I didn't have before."

Since losing government funding in 1994, the Niagara Consortium has cut its faculty from 80 or 90 teachers to about 25 or 30 today. Robert Hausrath, director of the program, says some of the professors who work with him feel so strongly about the benefits of the program that they have offered to continue teaching on a volunteer basis when the funding dries up. But Mr. Hausrath says he doubts the program could work staffed fully by volunteers.

Hausrath says he will continue to fight for the life of the program, but he's not feeling optimistic. The public in general is not receptive to the idea of offering college to inmates, he says, noting that at this point, even positive publicity about the program tends to provoke a spate of angry letters.

But Hausrath says he can't deny a great sense of sadness about the whole thing. "I know the good it's done," he says. "It breaks my heart to see it go."

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