MICHAEL JOHNSON: My name is Michael Johnson. I currently reside at Auburn Correctional Facility. I'm taking classes in economics. I have taken classes on genetics, entrepreneurship. For a long time I really had no hope, none whatsoever. I couldn't see over the wall. I couldn't see any light. This made me learn to value myself, to find value in myself that I didn't really have.
DEBORAH STREETER: Some people, they might see, you know, somebody going to prison as that's sort of the end of their life. They're going to be punished. And that's going to determine the rest of their life. Education is one of the variables that can make a difference.
KRISTEN COE: The Cornell Prison Education Program provides liberal arts curriculum for students working towards an Associate's degree, completely free of charge.
MICHAEL JOHNSON: We're handicapped in society. Arguably, we did it to ourselves, but we're handicapped in society. We need every tool we can get our hands on to live or product in life.
JEREMY SMITH: These students are learning concrete skills that are going to be useful if they get out of prison or if they're in prison, just being able to write better, be able to think better, be able to analyze problems.
DEBORAH STREETER: The first day of class, Michael Johnson, he was sitting in the front. He was raising his hand all the time.
KRISTEN COE: You could often look at him across the room when you were lecturing and really see the wheels turning.
MICHAEL JOHNSON: I have never left a class and not felt like I have accomplished something, not a single class.
DEBORAH STREETER: I taught a class in entrepreneurship. The goal of my business plan in class was, I wanted them to have an ability to envision themselves sort of more as the ambassadors of their own career.
MICHAEL JOHNSON: That class woke me up. I was looking for something that I can do that-- possibly that I can employ myself, maybe even create jobs for people.
DEBORAH STREETER: Michael had a clear idea about a business plan. And so I really made him prove to me that there was an opportunity there.
MICHAEL JOHNSON: A transportation broker really fills the niche between the big trucking company and the independent operators. And this is something that I realized that I can do with a small initial outlay. You know, that class woke me up to the fact that this is another aspect I have to work on, not just the books, but I have to work on myself.
TOM OWENS: For anyone who likes teaching, this is an unbelievably rewarding experience.
DEBORAH STREETER: There are poets. There are people who are really savvy businesspeople.
KRISTEN COE: Writers, philosophers, academics.
ESTHER KWAN: At first, I was kind of intimidated with the fact that you are exposed to a population that you really hear about in the news, but those fears were very easily overcome.
KRISTEN COE: These were some of the most respectful men I have ever met in my life.
NIAJEE WASHINGTON: It opens your world to new things. It gives you a certain hope and a certain outlook on life that you wouldn't have otherwise, because you're with people who understand the value and the privilege of learning. And I think reaching out to those that people usually forget or cast aside is one of the best things that you can do.
TOM OWENS: You have to try it to really understand what it means to do it.
DEBORAH STREETER: You see a change, that they start to see hope.
MICHAEL JOHNSON: When you come to prison, a lot of times, your family, your friends, they'll turn your back on them. So I think I've gained a lot of respect. My nieces and my nephews have even told me that they were proud of me. And that, you know, that right there, that meant the world to me.
CATALINA IRICINSCHI: We keep talking about second chances. This is what it is.
MICHAEL JOHNSON: Do we deserve it? You know, you have to think of entitlement. You know, are we entitled? I'd say, no. We're not entitled. But I know that we appreciate it. And we try to earn it every day. None of us takes this for granted. None of us, not a single man.
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This video details the academic experience of an incarcerated student pursuing an associates degree through the Cornell Prison Education Program. It features his commentary, as well as insights provided by Cornell faculty, graduate students and undergraduates who volunteer in the program.