WNPR’s “Where We Live” explored college prison programs, a dwindling resource that has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to prevent recidivism, in a conversation featuring Dara Young, program manager for Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education, and Michael McAlear, associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, who teaches in the program.
Young was asked why teaching the liberal arts is effective in prison programs.
“The type of thinking that we hope to encourage through a liberal arts education is particularly important when we’re talking about people who are incarcerated,” said Young. “We regularly hear from our students that the experience of taking liberal arts classes is just transformative. When you expose people to new ideas, to new ways to thinking about the world, it helps them to understand how they got to where they got, and what the mistakes were that they made along the way that helped them to reach this point in their life. I think it also helps them understand what the opportunities are for them to change and to become different, so when they are released, […] they come out as better people than they were when they started.”
“When we talk about the liberal arts versus a vocational education, for example, the liberal arts really provides transferrable skills. So if you’re trained for one job, and you can’t receive it, where are you left? But the liberal arts teach you, for example, to disagree with authority in a respectful way. Or to persevere even in the face of challenges. […] All of those skills help you to succeed when you walk out of those prison doors,” she added.
Young described the program’s rigorous admission process, with a similar acceptance rate to Wesleyan’s for traditional students. “The primary thing we’re looking for is intellectual curiosity,” she said. “It’s wanting to learn, and seeing learning as an opportunity to better oneself.”
“Once our students are admitted to the program, they take two classes a semester with Wesleyan professors. They take classes that have the same syllabus, it’s the same material, and our expectations of our students are exactly the same as they would be if they were an on-campus traditional student. And they receive credit for their work, just like any Wesleyan undergraduate would.”
McAlear described the experience of teaching in the program.
“I was kind of reluctant, had some hesitation and trepidation… I wasn’t sure it would work,” he admitted. But he was convinced of the social value of the program, and decided to give it a try. He was among a small group to recommend the program to the Wesleyan faculty.
The first semester, he taught a general education course that covers basic biology and chemistry related to food and disease.
“It was the most profound teaching experience I’ve ever had,” McAlear said. “It was an amazing experience. The class was the most engaged, thoughtful, hardworking class that I have ever experienced. So it was a real turnaround.”