Bard College teaches prisoners

The Bard College Prison Initiative stresses importance of a liberal arts education

There are many programs that call themselves “college in prison.” Most lean toward job training and teaching skills that prisoners can use upon their release. Bard College’s Prison Initiative, also known as BPI, focuses instead on the importance of the liberal arts in public life.

Daniel Karpowitz, the prison initiative’s director of policy and national programs, says the program offers incarcerated men and women a chance to change their lives and return to general society as better parents, neighbors and citizens.

His book College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration (2017, Rutgers University Press) examines the success—and struggles—of a partnership between a private New York college and the modern penitentiary system.

“If you go into the heart of BPI, inside the prisons of New York, you will encounter one of the best liberal arts colleges anywhere—in or out of a prison—in the Northeast,” Karpowitz says.

The BPI program has a remarkable 2 percent recidivism rate for graduates.

And for people who participate intensively but are released prior to receiving a degree, the rate is still below 5 percent. But the recidivism rates are not the motive, they are not the inspiration of the work, and above all, they do not guide the how-to of the work. In fact, on the contrary, one of our axioms is that we don’t care about recidivism.

If you make that the motivation for college, you’ve undermined a great opportunity for doing the best of what American higher education can do.

It strikes me that the inmates are more passionate about a college education than are traditional college students. There’s a real defiance—“I’ve been told I can’t do this, but I will.”

Yes. And as you can imagine, that inspires faculty. Faculty has to, literally and figuratively, go out of their way to teach the program. But you can imagine why, once they try it, they get bitten by the bug. You walk into that room and here’s a group of students who understand how precious this is.

You want to know what the recidivism numbers are really about? They’re about ownership. They’re saying, “That college has said they think I can do that, and if I do this, that’s my school. I own that. That transcript belongs to me. These grades belong to me.”

And the harder the college is, the more the students own it. They know what they’ve earned, and they’re never letting go. We have alumni, 12 years after graduation, who still say this is theirs. They are so proud of what they did. They know it has high value, and that’s life-changing.

What sets one applicant apart from another to make them a potential Bard student?

It’s a selective program, and there’s far more applicant demand than there are incoming spots. We have about 350 students in the Bard College in Prison program. The prison systems with which we partner typically make having completed a GED the requirement to being eligible to apply to a college program.

Beyond that, we don’t look at a GED score. We don’t administer any other standardized test. Just as it is at Bard, the bulk of the process is an admission essay, an assigned essay that students have to write in a big room in response to college-type short prompts. They have to read the prompt and then take a couple of hours to write a response.

That is the overwhelming part of the process for us.

What are we looking for? Any sign of promise. It’s actually a fairly diverse set of determinants that we’re looking for that show promise. Sometimes it’s something very significant or insightful in the writing that they submit, regardless of how it’s written. It could be written at an eighth- or ninth-grade level, but has some real indicators that this person is thinking.

They’re thinking critically. They’re reading closely. They are connecting dots. They are doing something mentally, cognitively that’s very significant. So the content may not be exceptional but there’s a skill set there. That’s a high indicator for us of promise.

Sometimes what we find is a person who is not outstanding in other categories, but who takes risks. They have desire, determination and grit. This person displays that they have come to a point in their life where they are determined to succeed.

They say, “I want to thrive. I want to participate in this country or in my society, but I’m still a defiant person. I’m still a proud person, so I want it on my terms.” And the college is that middle ground. The college seems to be a place for these people to say, “I’m still defiant. I’m still proud. But that’s a piece of the establishment that I can call my own.”

There are numerous different indicators that we take seriously—all of which we prefer to standardized tests.

About expanding rigorous college-in-prison programs, you wrote, “I fear that future innovations in college and prison will not be designed with such a democratic vision of excellence.” Is that a product of scaling up—failing to ensure quality?

I think that’s right. Why is that? Two things. The first reason is the bigotry of low expectations. There is a fear that if we make things too hard, these kids will fail, and we don’t want to impose failure on them.

What you do is begin with the unusual conviction that these people can succeed, and we will commit to making sure they get across the finish line, but it’s going to be as hard as possible.

The second thing is, people in leadership positions often design programs for “other people’s children,” to paraphrase educator Lisa Delpit. That is heartbreaking.

I will not build a college in any prison in the country that, aside from the prison context, I would not be proud to attend myself.

Students in our program have to elect to participate, since it’s an outlier, and it’s run by a private, not-for-profit college and there are huge hurdles to participating. They have to give something up to participate. How do you go to scale and still have sacrifice?

The problem is nobody asks those questions when they consider scaling. Instead they say, “We’ll run an algorithm and we’ll determine the perfect candidates. Then we’ll take all these good candidates and we’ll put them in a room. And then we’ll tell them that if they comply with the steps they are assigned, they’ll get out the door early.”

That destroys the whole purpose of college in prison. And these people will do it in their sleep. There’s nothing easier than doing what I just described. How do you go to scale and keep initiative, risk, sacrifice and a little bit of defiance?

I’m not sure how pervasive a sentiment that is among people in leadership and decision-making positions, and that, frankly, frightens me.

What’s next for the Bard program? Are there plans to expand?

Yes. Bard is now running a college in Holyoke, Massachusetts, inside a women’s care center. It’s a shelter for women who are in crisis—typically, mothers with children. And now, if you go to the top floor of this little building in Holyoke, Bard College is on the top floor. A one-room college. And the women are earning Bard credits.

They’re working toward Bard degrees. For the first time in their lives, they’re succeeding, and they’re doing so in a very ambitious college.

And there’s the national work that I’m in charge of, which is creating new programs around the country. We’re partnering with colleges and universities, and partnering with departments of corrections to just do more of this in other states and see what happens.

What I do primarily is to start up new college-in-prison programs, and it’s always a partnership between the university and the department of corrections.

We’re also creating a micro-college inside the Brooklyn Public Library.

Microcolleges are exactly what they sound like. They piggyback off existing facilities, but they do try in an innovative way to take rigorous higher ed and four-year college attitudes in situ, to places where the students—unconventional students—may have a higher chance of success than they do elsewhere.

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.

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