Cornell Pilots Research Class with Ithaca, Incarcerated Students

Cornell University recently completed its first pilot research class that fosters collaboration and research between Ithaca-based and incarcerated students. Taught in fall 2019, the Prison Partners Library Research course allowed Ithaca students to facilitate the research work of incarcerated students.

two male prisoners looking at a computer monitorCornell University recently completed its first pilot research class that fosters collaboration and research between Ithaca-based and incarcerated students. Taught in fall 2019, the Prison Partners Library Research course allowed Ithaca students to facilitate the research work of incarcerated students.

The course is part of Cornell’s Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP), through which incarcerated students can earn a Cornell Certificate of Liberal Arts or an associate degree through a regional college. The course aims to help CPEP students get the resources they need for research papers while helping Ithaca students refine their research skills.

Heather Furnas, course instructor and American Studies librarian at Cornell, explained that both populations of students benefit as “they have their worlds open up through this collaboration.” She received support from an Engaged Faculty Fellowship from Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives.

Ithaca students learn to integrate research methods while gaining an understanding of the prison system, said Furnas—discovering their information privilege and seeing the effects “when others don’t have access to that type, quality, or quantity of materials.” Moreover, Ithaca students learn to use those research methods in a way “that really matters, and it matters to another person. The end goal wasn’t just learning the skills. The end goal was to help another person get their degree,” Furnas noted.

On the other side, incarcerated students get access to materials and the wider world; they have very limited resources to academic materials and no internet access, which makes independent research papers a challenge. Moreover, Furnas pointed out: “part of the college experience is an academic community, and that’s what we can build.”

In the past, CPEP students would get research packets of materials from librarians and undergraduates to help with their projects. Though they were very appreciative, that didn’t quite sit right with Furnas, because research is about “following trails,” not pre-processed and packaged information.

So when CPEP students got access to a lab with computers that had word processing and spreadsheet capabilities but no internet access, Furnas decided to help make research more responsive by helping, in coordination with the prison, to facilitate the installation of an offline version of JSTOR. It did not have a full text search, since all articles had to go through media review, but CPEP students could search the index to request articles for their research projects.

The incarcerated students provided academic biography, the state of their research, where their research was going, and the top three articles they thought were most important to their project. Ithaca students then chose the incarcerated student that they felt they could help best.

Students only got to meet each other once during the program. The collaboration played out largely through citation management software in which incarcerated students “built up a library” of their research. Ithaca students met with Furnas twice a week for seven weeks, using the software to build on the incarcerated students’ work. At the end of the class, Ithaca students assembled a packet of 200 pages each for the incarcerated students, along with five books.

For future versions of the class, Furnas would like the course to be a full semester, instead of only seven weeks. She’d also like Ithaca students to have “more time to commit to their own research projects on information privilege.”



Programs like Cornell’s can have a real impact on the lives of incarcerated students and society, particularly in reducing recidivism. Jameson Rohrer, a California prison librarian, said that “statistics show that the higher education a California person receives while incarcerated, the percentage of them returning to county jail or state prison drops significantly.” A 2013 RAND study bears him out, reporting that “Researchers found that inmates who participate in correctional education programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not.”

Moreover, these programs can have ripple effects beyond their direct participants. Rohrer pointed out that if other inmates see incarcerated students participating in these programs and graduating from them, as well as changing behavior over time, “it sets expectations in a correctional setting. You are expected to pursue educational opportunities.” Rohrer also sees college courses helping prepare incarcerated students “to be better citizens when they get out.”

Rohrer believes that “The increase in college programs is necessary. It will help change the focus of prisons from just correctional to actual rehabilitative. When you provide education services, that’s truly rehabilitative programming.”

But there are challenges to making such programs widely available. Funding may not be robust and is often very inconsistent. Staffing is also a challenge; Rohrer noted that there is a moderately high job vacancy rate in California for prison librarians. Logistics are also a big issue. For instance, many prisons do not have a dedicated space to hold classes and the space can vary week to week, Rohrer said.

Rohrer explained that every state has different ways of providing prison libraries. Federal law mandates access to legal libraries, but “in the U.S.…the legal [libraries are] the only required part. Recreational libraries, programs, and college education are a privilege. None of that is technically required.” He’d love to see the American Library Association advocate for recreational libraries and education programs as a requirement for all prisons, as well as for prison librarianship as a career path.

Moreover, Rohrer would like to see efforts to establish internet access, even if it’s firewalled or otherwise restricted. While he understands the concerns that arise over giving inmates such access, internet usage is “a skill and something you need to do as an adult in 2020,” he said.

Rohrer sees promise in Cornell and Harvard—where the university's Prison Studies Project has been compiling a list of higher education in prison programs throughout the United States—taking the lead. Ultimately, Rohrer believes that “we can’t keep releasing people without education skills. It’s not right to them and it’s not right to society.”

Furnas has already seen the benefits. Ithaca students gave feedback that the class was valuable to them. One student wrote in their evaluation that it made them a better citizen. The incarcerated students were quite appreciative as well; Furnas said she got a stack of lovely thank-you notes.

“These are Cornell students. Part of Cornell’s mission is to do extension education. They are deserving of our time and effort,” she explained.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Marcia tewell

Love the idea and combined with the 'Airbnb" project in Oakland for folks on parole, this could move the dial for individuals recidivism rates. Oakland pays families/individuals to open their extra bedrooms to parolees for six months as they search for work and settle back into community life.

Posted : Mar 05, 2020 05:56



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing