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How This Radical College For Inmates Is Taking Its Program Outside The Walls

The Bard Prison Initiative drastically cuts down on recidivism. Now it’s finding ways to offering its program to people in need of education who aren’t behind bars.

How This Radical College For Inmates Is Taking Its Program Outside The Walls
“They’re engaged in their communities and all kinds civic and positive and educational ways.” [Photo: Image Source/Getty Images]

Nationally, nearly half of all inmates released from prison return there after committing another crime. But the recidivism rate among those who’ve earned college degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative, an adjunct program operated by liberal arts school Bard College inside six medium and maximum security prisons in New York, is far lower: Since the program began in 2001, more than 400 convicts have graduated and eventually been released. Just 2% end up back behind bars.

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Most also have no trouble finding work. “It’s not that they just don’t return to prison,” says BPI founder and executive director Max Kenner. “It’s that they become independent middle-class taxpaying citizens, neighbors, and pals. They’re engaged in their communities and all kinds civic and positive and educational ways.”

The program is structured to resemble a classic college curriculum for associate and bachelor level degrees. BPI has roughly 60 classes overall, which span the liberal arts spectrum from advanced calculus to genetics, and Mandarin Chinese. Students are encouraged to take a full load—about four to five classes per semester—to complete their degrees within the same timeframe as those might outside the walls. Common majors include mathematics, humanities, and social studies, which include a senior thesis that must be defended in front of an academic committee.

Access to quality higher education can make a serious difference someone’s future potential, particularly those in need of second chances. [Photo: sakakawea7/iStock]
It’s not a zero-sum commitment: Other inmates can join basic courses in public health, computer science, and food systems, which could help them get hired after their release.

Overall, Bard has 90 teachers spread between their six sites. Many are from Bard, but also Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, and Columbia, the latter of which for example, has renowned faculty at the Mailman School of Public Health, who help anchor similar studies.

Access to quality higher education can make a serious difference someone’s future potential, particularly those in need of second chances. (BPI students would happily argue this fact; their debate team made headlines in 2015 for beating Harvard.) From a fiscal standpoint, though, the reason that the program works is because BPI is frugal. It can’t charge prisoners tuition, but uses their building and supplies as a remote campus. As Kenner puts it, “another institution is picking up the overhead.”

Such thinking has led other universities and colleges in at least 15 states try similar programs. To that end, Bard has developed the Consortium for Liberal Arts in Prison, which allows places like University of Notre Dame, University of Vermont, and Wesleyan to share what they’re learning create a strategic planning blueprint that others can follow in hopes of keeping their programs effective and sustainable.

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But a couple years ago, Kenner realized there was no need to keep the model prison specific. To counter the “crises of cost and access in American education” Bard could expand their model to places like social services centers or even libraries, which could do the same thing on a community level.

Bard’s pilot program for that is a “micro-college” at The Care Center in Holyoke, Massachusetts, which provides support to low-income women interested in passing a high school equivalency test. Holyoke is the poorest community in the state, so in addition to tutoring, the group provides participants with food, access to health services, transportation, and childcare. The goal is for students to earn a basic diploma first, and then move on to college, which Care Center executive director Anne Teschner, calls “a pathway to the middle class.” Over the last eight years, roughly 75% of their enrollees did just that but then dropped out because they lacked the same kind of support.

Students don’t have to pay for books, which–along with the rest of the school’s budget–are largely covered by private donors.  [Photo: Tim Gray/iStock]
So last fall, Teschner and Kenner joined forces, using the BPI model to offer an associate degree in liberal arts through Care Center classes. The faculty is made up of mostly academics from nearby schools like Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith, University of Massachusetts and Hampshire College, and an adjunct Bard campus in the nearby Simon’s Rock.

As would be expected on a traditional campus, Bard Microcollege Holyoke offers the equivalent of two full years of bachelor-degree work, including lots of writing intensive workshops (titles include: “Language and Thinking” and “Citizen Science)” and a seminar series covering literary classics that Bard has mandated all students study for more than a half-century, including The Republic, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and Go Tell it on the Mountain.

At the same time, the Care Center has established a post-grad career path: Teschner says there are plenty of health care, insurance, and higher education jobs available in the surrounding Pioneer Valley. There isn’t specialized training for these jobs, but many require some sort of higher education, which helps demonstrate that candidates have strong critical thinking, time management, and problem-solving skills.

So far, the school has enrolled roughly 18 students and expects to reach about 70 over the next few years. Students don’t have to pay for books, which–along with the rest of the school’s budget–are largely covered by private donors.  At the same time, those who enroll are being asked to apply for Pell Grants, which would allow the school to charge a small tuition that could eventually create enough funding as the student body grows to make the college self-sustainable.

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Kenner says the micro-college program is already seeking other places for expansion. “We’re crashing through some assumptions here including the idea that if you don’t get what you need by age five, then you’re doomed,” adds Teschner, only half jokingly. “Well, it is harder but people aren’t doomed. People are fine. People are incredibly resilient.”

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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