M. Spencer Green / AP

It’s the first day of class, and we—a couple of instructors from Cornell—sit around a table with a few of our students as the rest trickle in. Anderson, one of the students seated across from us, smiles and says, “I’m going to get an A+ in your class.” “No,” VanAntwerp retorts, “I’m getting the A+.”

You might think that this scene is typical of classes at a school like Cornell University, where driven students compete for top marks. But this didn’t happen on a college campus: It took place in a maximum-security prison.

To the outside world, they are inmates, but in the classroom, they are students enrolled in the Cornell Prison Education Program, or “CPEP.” Per New York State Department of Corrections rules, we have permission to use the inmates’ last names only—which is also often how we know them best. Those who graduate from the program—taught by Cornell instructors—will receive an associate’s degree from Cayuga Community College.

Before teaching neuroscience to prison inmates, we taught it to Cornell undergraduates as part of the teaching staff for Cornell’s Introduction to Neuroscience course. Most Cornell neuroscience students are high-achieving biology majors and premeds, who are well prepared to succeed in a demanding course. They generally have gone from one academic success to another, and it is no secret that they expect a similar level of success in a neuroscience class.

The students at Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York have much different backgrounds. They are not seasoned scholars. They are convicted felons, many of whom have never taken a biology class at any level. As such, when we signed up to teach Introduction to Neuroscience in Auburn, we initially set modest goals for these students. We expected that we would have to teach a rudimentary version of the demanding Cornell course.

We could not have been more wrong. This is the story of two neuroscience classes—one from Auburn and one from Cornell—and how the biggest differences between them had to do with how they approached the material, not how well they understood it.  

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One of the first things we noticed when we started the neuroscience class at Auburn was that the students at Auburn aren’t distracted. They don’t have phones or laptops. Interruptions barely register. Faced with a commotion, Auburn students, seated in too-low chairs around a cluster of tables, might look up, glance around, but then they dive back into the discussion. The classroom becomes a shared creation of students and instructors that requires a total investment of effort. Time is what the students have; opportunity is what they need.

When asked why they want to study neuroscience, it is instantly clear that for many college students, the purpose of a class is at least partially a means to an end—a requirement to check off the list for graduation; a prerequisite for upper-level courses; another A to put on a medical-school application. But when the inmates are asked why they decided to study neuroscience, many of them state more noble, academic reasons: They want to learn and apply the knowledge they gain to develop a deeper appreciation for phenomena they experience in everyday life. “I come here because I’m thirsty,” Bedi (Babi) said. “I want to learn.”

Unsurprisingly, compared with college kids, Auburn students are older, more diverse, and come to class with a wealth of real-world experience. And their backgrounds drive how they think about the material in novel and unique ways that are informed by, and apply to, their own lives. “Will studying neuroscience help me understand what goes on around me,” asked O’Malley on the first day of class at Auburn, “like how my thoughts follow from each other, or how I can make my arm move, or even, whether we are really conscious?”

To be clear, many Cornell students are also interested in the course material for its own sake. And they bring their own lived experiences and perspectives as well. But their intellectual curiosity is often tempered by pressures connected to larger goals. “On campus, students can postpone the relevancy and gratification for years, until medical school or graduate school,” says Rob Scott, the director of CPEP. “But students in prison can’t assume these opportunities will come, so the curriculum has to be immediately relevant and help the students understand the world they see around them.”

In an Auburn neuroscience course, students’ desire to understand the world around them is manifest when the students want to learn about the mentally ill inmates living among them. During one class, VanAntwerp asked when we were going to discuss the neurobiological underpinnings of schizophrenia. “Clearly someone has read ahead,” we joked. Three weeks ahead, to be exact. This is common in Auburn, where students wait all week to attend class, eagerly anticipating the academic discussions that break up monotonous prison life. For many, school is a highlight of the week and serves as one of a few tenuous links to the world outside prison walls. Students in Auburn will read and reread assigned readings, often weeks in advance.

Their counterparts at Cornell, on the other hand, have endless outlets for intellectual and personal energy. Sometimes they expend much of their energy on pursuits other than coursework. This is not a criticism, just a fact. The typical college experience is much more than the academic work, and students at Cornell certainly appreciate the myriad nonacademic resources, opportunities, and social experiences available to them.

Students in Auburn have no such wealth of extracurricular opportunities. “If you aren’t given access to something in years and years, and then you suddenly get it, that can make for an incredibly intense experience,” says Scott.

Cornell students excel at learning and retaining vast amounts of new information. Being able to cram for tests, recall the smallest details, construct elaborate, finessed arguments, and draw conclusions between disparate points all become essential qualifications for many Cornell biology students. As one Cornell student said when asked about Introduction to Neuroscience: “I took the course as a requirement for my major. At the beginning, I just memorized the material, but by the end, it had turned into learning that I truly enjoyed.”

This attitude can be seen when studying the visual system. Packed with dizzying minutiae and intricacy, the visual system is one of the most complex topics covered in Introduction to Neuroscience. Cornell students tackle this material head-on. For them, it is just another complex topic in a difficult class. Many approach it systematically, plowing through details, learning concepts, and memorizing material for the next exam. For some, if they enjoy the material, that is great, but often, that isn’t the immediate goal.

Students in Auburn take a different approach, favoring the forest over the trees and taking pleasure in the subject before mastering it. Studying neuroscience helps inmates develop a deeper understanding of their own lives. Neuroscience “enables you to live a more thoughtful existence—being confined physically, but free mentally,” said O’Malley.

Another difference we saw between our Cornell and Auburn students is the expectations they had for themselves. Many Cornell students feel pressured to succeed, with the assumption that they would thrive and flourish because of their education. Not so for Auburn students: Many grew up with the expectation that they would not succeed, and their incarceration only reinforces that belief. To them, higher education is a new kind of experience, one that demands rigor yet expects success and provides a new chance for intellectual achievement.

“My teachers said I would never graduate high school,” said another student. “They push you through without actually paying attention to whether you are learning or not. Here, you have to want to take the classes out of interest and because you want to learn.”

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So what’s the point of all this learning? After all, many of our students committed serious crimes and are destined to spend many years behind bars. Why should inmates receive a free, high-quality education?

Reduced recidivism is one reason, and when it comes to CPEP the numbers are clear. In New York state, more than 95 percent of incarcerated individuals will eventually be released, but 40 percent of them will wind up re-incarcerated. Of the 42 students who have taken three or more CPEP classes and who have since been released from prison, only four have been re-incarcerated, a 7 percent recidivism rate. The RAND Corporation found that prison education programs across the country reduce recidivism by 43 percent. Which also means these programs save taxpayers money: For every $1 investment in prison education, between $4 and $5 is saved in re-incarceration costs in the first three years post-release.

Naturally, there are less tangible benefits as well. Teaching in prison has allowed us to see those benefits firsthand, as we witness the personal growth of the people directly in front of us and the positive impact on the culture of the prison more broadly. For example, when the prisoners are together in the yard, our students spend so much of their time talking about neuroscience that they are referred to by other inmates as the “Neuroscience Guys.” In a place where identity often takes the form of loyalty to a gang, it is exciting to hear that our class embraces a different type of identity. Education fosters a noble view of oneself and of one’s relationship to the world. This is true anywhere, even inside the walls of a maximum-security prison. Maybe especially in prison—a place where education can totally redirect a life, a positive diversion from a negative path. As Bethea told us, college education has “encouraged me to want to contribute to society in a beneficial way, to share, be creative, and come up with positive ideas and positive directions.”

Of course, sometimes students are just students. “I want to finish my degree, get out of here, find a job, and start my life,” one student said recently.

Bet you can’t guess which neuroscience class that came from.

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