Homer, Virgil hauled to New York prison for Ivy League class

Tue Apr 12, 2016 4:22pm EDT
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By Barbara Goldberg

BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. (Reuters) - The debate over Roman poet Ovid's use of the word "fugitive" in Metamorphoses was getting heated, but in the end the students - two murderers, a kidnapper and six other convicted felons - agreed to disagree.

Homer, Euripides and Virgil are all doing weekly stints at a New York women's prison this spring. Their classic works are being read by inmates enrolled in a Columbia University course organized by the non-profit Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, which aims to boost employment for convicts upon release and reduce recidivism.

About half of the 700,000 inmates who leave U.S. federal and state prisons each year in the world's biggest penal system will be re-incarcerated within three years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. But those who have taken classes offered by a consortium of colleges through Hudson Link over 16 years - including in the infamous Sing Sing penitentiary - have a recidivism rate of less than 2 percent.

Taconic Correctional Facility, a medium security prison that houses 350 women in suburban Bedford Hills, 40 miles (64 km) north of New York City, is no stranger to drama: it's one of the locations where the Netflix hit series "Orange Is the New Black" is filmed.

On a Friday evening, the crackling of a walkie-talkie on a corrections officer's uniform punctuated the debate over the mythological nymph Daphne's flight from a love-struck Apollo.

"Someone who is being described as a fugitive is someone who is supposed to be captured," said Jami Caesar, 38, who is serving five years for a drug conviction.

Her comment prompted an approving nod from professor Laura Ciolkowski, who teaches the Literature Humanities course through the Center for Justice at Columbia University, one of the eight elite Ivy League schools.

"I have to disagree," said Aisha Elliott, 44, who was a high school dropout when she began serving 25 years to life for murder in 1992 and is now working towards a college master's degree.   Continued...

A prison guard keeps watch during class at the Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, New York April 8, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri