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.
"Being a fugitive doesn't always end in capture," said Elliott, wearing the prison-issued green pants and shirts, as she reviewed a photocopy of the Ovid poem. Funds are too limited to buy many of the books on the syllabus.
"He's saying, 'You should not have run from me. I'm not some shepherd. I'm Apollo! The nerve of you to run'," she said.
DEVELOPING CRITICAL THINKING
Elliott, now a grandmother after being locked up at age 21, will be released from prison in early June. She intends to step for the first time ever onto a college campus and use the Columbia credits earned behind bars toward securing her master's degree at the top-ranked school in Manhattan, preferably in business. She hopes the Ivy League cache will mitigate obstacles to employment that most ex-convicts face.
"Knowing I was going to get a Columbia education was actually more exciting than hearing I was going home after doing 25 years," Elliott said.
Esoteric analyses of ancient texts may seem a far step from the street smarts needed to survive in what Elliott calls "the free world." But Taconic prison superintendent Wendy Featherstone, said most convicts will eventually return to their old neighborhoods and developing critical thinking skills may keep them from making the same mistakes that got them locked up in the first place.
"Once you stop just acting and start to think, maybe you can take a different course of action and it can quite possibly keep you out of jail," Featherstone said.
Studying the classics also is the key to eliminating barriers that may otherwise shut inmates out of the ongoing U.S. debate over racial, social and economic inequality, Ciolkowski said.
"There is a really deep value for them to feeling, 'Yeah, I can read this stuff and talk about it. I'm part of a civil society and can be part of a larger conversation.' Because they are told they are not civilized," Ciolkowski said.
Prison education funding is still struggling from deep cuts triggered by a sweeping 1994 federal crime bill, but there are signs the tide is turning. President Barack Obama announced in July a plan to restore federal Pell Grants - need-based college scholarships - for prisoners.
In January, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo circumvented legislators who mocked his prison education request as "Attica University" - borrowing the name of the notorious New York prison - and unveiled a plan to instead tap criminal forfeiture funds from the Manhattan district attorney's office.
Elliott said she is eager to flex her new, analytical muscles when she leaves Taconic's locked gates and barbed wire.
"Being able to disagree with somebody and it not be conflict is serious and real," Elliott said. "It teaches you humility."
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Mary Milliken)