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MAY 2005

education behind bars
The Bard College Prison Initiative
By Nazneen Malik

The brainchild of Max Kenner, the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), was created in 1999 to address the educational needs of prisoners and to provide them with the opportunity and the means to attain higher education while remaining within the correctional system.

To understand the logic behind such a program as BPI, one must revisit the 1970s, a time when the federal government looked favorably upon college in prison programs. Since then, numerous studies have shown that college in prison programs reduce the rate of recidivism, lower the number of violent incidents that occur within prisons, re-establish broken relationships between incarcerated parents and their children, and create a general sense of hope among inmates. Despite these beneficial consequences, in 1994, President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law, essentially abrogating federal support and funding for existing programs. As a result, of the 350 programs that had arisen, only three remained.

“The prison system is so large,” Kenner muses, “because it locks people up at a young age, and when they return home, they are less equipped to work, to attend school, and to function as social beings.” These deficiencies result in an increased chance that released prisoners will commit another crime of a greater magnitude, thereby paving the road back to prison, but this time for a much longer sentence.

As an undergraduate of Bard College, Kenner immersed himself in the prevailing culture of social justice advocacy on campus. In 1999, he and a group of like-minded individuals made the unsettling discovery that of the 72,000 men and women in the New York State prison system, four out of every five inmates were from New York City. Armed with this finding, and an increasing frustration with governmental divestment from education in social services, the group set out to tackle the issue of educating prison inmates. “We felt that if we were really going to commit ourselves to some kind of effort to improve social justice it should be broad-based, and it should be based on public institutions,” explains Kenner.

With that in mind, Kenner embarked on a mission to make Bard College an institutional home that would allow either faculty or students to gain access to prisons by lending its transcript services and by offering credit bearing courses and degrees to prison inmates.

After the national collapse of the college in prison programs, however, there was an incredible distrust among people in corrections who wanted to see the colleges come back and people in higher education who wanted colleges in the prison. According to Kenner, colleges only wanted to offer courses if could make a profit or if they could do so under ideal circumstances. Some colleges were simply not interested.

It took Kenner one and a half years to begin working with prisons. He was able to organize student volunteer programs that allowed students to conduct writing, GED, literacy, and theology workshops within the prison. “By the spring of my senior year, we had some 40 students volunteering at the prison on a weekly basis. Many of them said that it was the single most profound and influential thing that they had done at their time at Bard,” says Kenner.

Upon graduation, Kenner made a proposal to Bard College President, Leon Botstein, requesting that the college provide him with an office and grant him access to its transcripts so that they could begin offering college credit to prison inmates. The only stipulation was that Kenner would have to find a way to  raise money to support the program.

Following graduation, Kenner was given a salaried position by Episcopal Social Services (EPS). “The Bard Prison Initiative officially started as a partnership between EPS and Bard College,” says Kenner, “and five months later, in 2001, we began offering credit bearing courses to 17 students.”

Since then, the program has continued to expand. In the fall, two more prisons, one of which is a women’s prison, will be joining BPI and is expected to have about 125 enrolled students. BPI employs a blind admissions procedure and tuition for the program is completely waived by the college. Through grants, BPI acquires enough funding to enroll 15 students per facility in any given year.

Currently, BPI offers two educational programs to inmates. Anyone with a GED can apply for the pre-college program and those with a higher level of education can apply for the Associate’s degree program. In the fall, BPI will begin offering a Bachelor’s program that is consistent with the degree conferred to Bard College students. Those who have successfully completed the associate’s degree program in two or three years can then reapply for admission into the bachelor’s degree program.

Kenner hopes that the programs that have been implemented thus far will remain active and prove to be self-sustaining. He remains a passionate advocate for the return of college in prison programs and will continue to play an integral role in enhancing their opportunities.#



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