Bard Prison Initiative Celebrates 14th Commencement

By Christopher Zoukis

Success of the Bard Prison Initiative was reinforced this year as the 14th commencement was celebrated last month at the medium security Woodbourne Correctional Facility in New York. The men’s prison saw 30 students awarded Associate in Arts Degrees - degrees they earned behind bars!

BPI graduate Lionel J Johnson recently gave an impassioned speech about the achievement: “What we have achieved together, all of us together, is not ordinary. [To] have transformed this environment into a campus for higher learning: that’s not ordinary, that’s extraordinary . . . I leave you all with this thought: be, because you can, extraordinary.” Johnson also spoke about their David-and-Goliath moment winning against the Harvard debate team- surely an adequate representation of many of the challenges these inmates have overcome to complete their educational goals and graduate from college.

Overall, the Bard Prison Initiative will have awarded more than 400 degrees by the end of this year, in an effort to continue to reduce recidivism and enact criminal justice reform. The program focuses on a mix of developmental skills and college study. Over 60 courses are offered each semester.

The Bard initiative began in 2001 after an expansion of a 1999 Bard student led initiative to tutor in prisons. Starting with 15 students, the goal was to provide college opportunities inside the prison system of New York State. From 15 students, the Initiative now enrols 300 men and women inside of six prisons across the state 3 maximum-security and 3 medium -security prisons. Bard College, a four year residential college of the liberal arts and sciences, which spearheads the Initiative, also leads the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, which helps other colleges and universities across the country establish similar projects in prisons, including Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Goucher College in Maryland, and the University of Notre Dame and Holy Cross College in Indiana.

The Bard Prison Initiative has been very successful in reducing recidivism. Without educational opportunities, as many as half of released inmates will return to prison, with 68% being arrested within 3 years. This rate falls significantly with educational opportunities while incarcerated, with rates of recidivism less than 22%. Formerly incarcerated Bard students see a less than 2% rate of recidivism. Not only are rates of recidivism severely reduced, but costs of running the educational programs are much less than that of continuing or re-incarceration. BPI is also largely dependent on private funding.

Admission to the program is highly competitive, and each inmate undergoes a written exam and personal interview, and must have a high school diploma. Participants are accepted based on these, and their dedication to the program, and it is an achievement to even be accepted into the program, as typically there are 10 applications for each spot.  Courses are taught by Bard faculty and visiting professors, and all courses are taught onsite. All students enrolled are working towards a college degree.

The Initiative, and the Consortium, is another successful example of a comprehensive program working to reduce recidivism and prison costs, while providing educational opportunities to inmates, working to reduce mass incarceration. Continuing to recognize the significant role that educational opportunities play in our society is essential, and more opportunities like this need to be provided and expanded.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com