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Should Prisoners Get College Degrees? This Program Says Yes

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Should Prisoners Get College Degrees? This Program Says Yes

Forbes.com August 13, 2015
Urban PolicyCrime
OtherPrisoner Reentry

The past year has seen the development of a surprising coalition among conservatives and liberals urging that more must be done to reduce the U.S. prison population—including doing more to make sure that those leaving prison develop the skills and the chance to get jobs. It's a movement symobilized by President Obama's recent visit to a federal correctional institution. In addressing the problem for the past 15 years, Max Kenner has been ahead of his time. Notwithstanding a college degree and no criminal record of his own, Kenner has done whatever he can to get into prison. Specifically, from the time he was a college sophomore, Kenner has sought to bring higher education to those behind bars in the prisons of Upstate New York. His ultimate success in doing so—indeed, in bringing degree programs to 7 correctional institutions—would never have happened without the most basic and toughest step: just getting inside.

“I think they just thought I was goofy, at first,” says Kenner, recalling his 19-year-old Bard College second-year student self. In retrospect, he realizes his naiveté had advantages. He was not an established provider of social services, with the complications that such a role can have. He was unaware that there had been a time, not long before he approached authorities at Fishkill Correctional Institution in 2000, when federal higher education (Pell) grants, were available to prison inmates—but that such assistance had been ended. His motivation stemmed from a simple observation: that his own life and the lives of many other young men he had seen growing up in lower Manhattan had diverged dramatically—and he wondered if that was really inevitable. “I just had this idea about tutoring and volunteering.”

His persistence and success in gaining and retaining permission to go behind prison walls, and, at first, to bring in other students, as tutors, set in motion a series of events which have led to the Bard Prison Initiative. Key events include a crucial Episcopal church grant which allowed Kenner to pursue his work post-graduation; convincing Bard College and, indeed, faculty from schools around the region, to agree to teach in prison—and ultimately convincing Bard faculty to award a Bard degree to those enrolled in what amounts to a selective college behind bars: the Bard Prison Initiative. It is a “school” that has enrolled 600 students—virtually all serious felons with long sentences; many imprisoned at ages as young as 16, convicted of involvement in violent crimes. It has gone on to grant fully 350 Bard College degrees in the full range of the liberal arts, including history, literature, the sciences, quantitative reasoning and mathematics, as described in its own course catalog. Writing is especially emphasized; (Indeed, newly-admitted students are issued a grammar manual and a copy of Diana Hacker's Rules for Writers.)The majority (289) have been awarded two-year associates degrees, which Bard is authorized to award. BPI graduates, however—some of whom are released before they can complete Bard coursework—have gone on to obtain both undergraduate and advanced degrees from Yale and NYU. More typically, others have continued their education, part-time, while working.

The recidivism rates for BPI graduates is less than 2.5 percent; even for those taking just one course, the rate is less than 4 percent. Either figure compares well with the New York State estimated 40 percent recidivism rate. 

On my visit to the Eastern Correctional Institution in Ellenville, New York, Patrick, who has spent 22 years in prison, told me of his associates degree, “I never worked as hard for anything.” He's now pursuing his bachelor's degree. The BPI is an exceptionally difficult program into which to gain admission: fewer than 10 percent of the 200-plus applicants each year are admitted; indeed, only 60 are invited, based on an admission essay, even to sit for an interview. On my visit to Ellenville, I was introduced to a BPI student who applied six times before being accepted. “My mother cried when I called to tell her.” Admission can be called “sentence-blind”; thus some are released before having time to compete degree requirements. Prison officials told me that a BPI spot is coveted.

The BPI students to whom I was introduced exuded gratitude and seriousness of purpose. Shiloh, from Brooklyn's East Flatbush neighborhood, was open about having been a gang leader—and that, despite telling others not to follow his example, “they looked at what I did not what I said. They admired the hustler, the drug dealer. Those guys were the role models—not wimps who did well in school.” Now he is the one studying hard in school. “I contributed enough to the deterioration of my community. What can I give to it?” I asked another student, at work on an essay about Darwin, how he felt when at the computer work station at which he was writing. “When I'm here,” he said, “I'm not in prison.” Prison officials told me that the presence of instructors from outside prison and inmates pursuing serious educational purpose improved the overall prison atmosphere.The instruction I observed was impressive in many ways, including demanding mathematics and foreign language classes, even genetics.

Max Kenner's entrepreneurialism has not been limited, moreover, to mounting a Bard program in prison. He raises the more than $2 million in private funds on which the BPI operates each year, and has led the establishment of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, which encourages BPI-type programs around the country. To date, Wesleyan, Grinnell, Goucher, Notre Dame, and Holy Cross College (Indiana) have now established programs; Consortium seeks to expand to ten more states within the coming five years. Notre Dame and Holy Cross have recently awarded their first associates degrees.

Kenner hopes, as well, to formalize and expand the re-entry services and guidance it offers its alumni, through a BPI re-entry/alumni office in Brooklyn. But the BPI has already established a post-prison re-entry counseling program, maintaining relationships with alumni and tracking their post-prison lives.

The recidivism rates for BPI graduates is less than 2.5 percent; even for those taking just one course, the rate is less than 4 percent. Either figure compares well with the New York State estimated 40 percent recidivism rate. (To be sure, the Bard sample sizes are small—and it clearly draws on an already-motivated group.) BPI has not tracked earnings and employment for all graduates—but has studied what it calls a representative sample of the 300 alumni who are now “on the outside.” Of the 110 in the sample, 80 percent of alumni are employed; of those who obtained degrees, 83 percent. Among those with whom BPI maintains what it describes as those “very close ties,” earnings are said to be in the $40,000 to $80,000 range.

The idea of a college education behind bars can, to be sure, rub some the wrong way. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed that the state should support the sort of work the Bard Prison Initiative is doing, the public backlash—especially among those struggling to pay for college educations for their sons and daughters—was strong. For his part, Max Kenner found himself with mixed feelings. He appreciated the fact that the value of the Bard Prison Initiative had gained wider recognition. At the same time, it made clear that “if we depended on the government, how vulnerable we would be.” Through one means or another, one has the sense that Max Kenner will persist.

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