Prison Closure Affects Lang Civic Engagement Program
The Lang Prision Initiative was once a cornerstone of the college’s civic engagement program.
The initiative gave inmates at Arthur Kill Correctional Facility the opportunity to partake in an educational experience they normally would not be granted. It benefitted Lang students and faculty as well, not only providing them with a chance to help educate the men at Arthur Kill, but also an experience that expanded their own personal horizons.
With the impending closure of the Staten Island prison, however, the program now finds itself without a home and facing an uncertain future.
The medium-security facility, located in Staten Island’s Charleston section, had previously hosted a series of accredited Lang classes, as well as competitions between the Lang debate team and inmates. But with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement in June that seven New York State prisons, including Arthur Kill, would be shuttered, the status of the program is on hold.
“The three courses projected for Fall 2011 have been canceled because a significant number of men had already been transferred [to other facilities],” said Judy Mejia, director of civic engagement and social justice at Lang. “Despite the program’s relative success in its early stages of development, at this time, Lang has no plans to establish a parallel program at another correctional facility.”
Despite the current discontinuation of the initiative, Kate Eichhorn, assistant professor and director of culture and media at Lang, is hopeful that similar educational approaches can be spun off into a new program.
“We are proposing to spend the next twelve months exploring other potential models and sites of intervention,” she told The Free Press.
Since spring 2008, the Lang Prison Initiative has sent faculty members to Arthur Kill to educate inmates on various subjects, including writing, social sciences and the arts. As a result, over 40 eligible inmates have participated in educational programs similar to those provided to New School students. Lang provided the classes through external funding sources generated by donors.
“The idea was that these men were also our students, and they should be afforded the same access to education as anyone else,” said Ella Turenne, the former director of special projects at Lang. “And what was great about what The New School did was we offered them credit for the courses at no cost to them.”
But with the prison officially scheduled to shut down on December 1, the partnership between the state-run facility and The New School’s prison initiative is left without a venue.
“Based on the current situation with the state’s budget cuts, we have no choice but to re-evaluate the future of our civic engagement program,” said Linda Foglia, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, noting the government’s inability to provide the program with a location.
Besides having faculty members teach classes at Arthur Kill, the program also held one public debate between Lang’s debate team, currently ranked 27th in the nation, and the Arthur Kill debate team, which has remained undefeated since its inception.
“I was impressed with the intelligence and charisma the inmate debaters had,” said Lang senior Santiago Posas, a longtime member of the debate team, in an email to The Free Press. “Hopefully, the state will eventually find a way to continue its prison education and debate programs.”
“The debate came about because we learned that Arthur Kill had a debate team and that they debated other schools,” Turenne said. “There was mutual interest from the Arthur Kill debaters and the New School debaters to do this so we helped them make it happen.”
Governor Cuomo has called the closure of Arthur Kill and six other state-run correctional facilities essential for the state’s fiscal future. According to the Governor’s office, the move is expected to save the state $72 million this fiscal year, and $112 million next year.
“The state’s prison system has been too inefficient and too costly, with far more capacity than what is needed to secure the state’s inmate population and ensure the public’s safety,” Cuomo said in an official statement on June 30.
Despite ongoing efforts to balance the state budget, Mejia remains hopeful that the initiative’s legacy carries onward, even after its discontinuation.
“I feel dismayed by the decision,” Mejia said. “I am hopeful for our students though; many had five years or less left in the system, and soon will be released. It is my hope they will be able to re-integrate into the community successfully as a result of our prison education program.”