For government major Andrew Shi ’17, satisfying his academic requirements involved not only tutoring other students in political theory and English literature, but going through a metal detector and eschewing green clothes. One of the first Cornellians to complete the University’s new minor on mass incarceration, Shi served as an assistant in college-level classes at Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison where—among many other rules—visitors are forbidden to wear clothing of the same color as the inmates’ uniforms. “Being able to see the prison system in person, and getting to know people inside, gave me important direct experience,” says the Virginia native, whose experiences inspired a plan to pursue criminal law after earning his JD at Penn, where he’ll matriculate this fall. “When I read about crime policies, I’m going to be thinking about faces and people.”
Introduced in fall 2015 and based in the government department, the minor—officially called Crime, Justice, Education, and Prisons—explores myriad topics including racial and economic inequality, law, and politics. According to Joe Margulies ’82, a professor of law and government who serves as its faculty coordinator, the academic program is the only one of its kind in the country. While others cover similar topics in the classroom, he says, Cornell’s is unique in requiring students to participate as assistants in a prison education program, in which inmates earn associate’s degrees.
In its first two years, the minor has attracted about thirty students from a variety of majors. Its qualifying courses—participants must complete five, from of a list of twenty-five—span such departments as history, American studies, sociology, government, and anthropology. Topics range from poverty in the U.S. to the political and racial factors that have led to mass incarceration—the latter covered in a class called “Orange Is the New Black,” after the memoir and Netflix show set in a women’s prison. As that course’s syllabus notes: “In the last forty years, the American incarceration rate has grown by leaps and bounds. This increase is not only historically novel, but also unprecedented among wealthy democracies.”
The U.S. is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners; about two million Americans are currently incarcerated and 70 million more have a criminal record of some kind. In recent years, the crisis of mass incarceration has come to the forefront of a national conversation on race, justice, crime, and punishment—but as Margulies notes, successful reform will require a new generation of leaders with a deep understanding of the underlying issues. “We’ve been living with the explosion of prison rates, incarceration rates, and consequences of over-criminalization for decades,” says Margulies, who served as the lead lawyer on two Supreme Court cases relating to detention and imprisonment. “What’s interesting now is that things might be changing.”
Caroline Markowitz ’18, another student enrolled in the minor, taught at Cayuga Correctional Facility, a maximum security men’s prison in nearby Moravia. She recalls that during her orientation, guards warned her that as a female she’d be the target of unwanted attention. “But on the first day, I realized the students are there to learn and they really respect you,” says Markowitz, a government major from Greenwich, Connecticut. “I’ve never felt unsafe there at all.” Tapping knowledge she’d gained taking Constitutional law on the Hill, Markowitz led some eighteen inmates in studying the First Amendment, with the guidance of third-year law students. “As an undergrad, I basically got to teach law,” she says, “which is incredible.”
While the minor only requires that students teach in a prison for one semester, Markowitz returned to assist with a second class; working with the incarcerated men, she says, has given a vital human dimension to her academic studies. “It made me realize that it’s one thing to look at policy—like mandatory minimum sentences—and another to go to the prison and see that these are real people,” she says. “One of them will say, ‘Only five years until I’m out.’ And I think, where am I going to be in five years? That’s so long from now.”