Bard Prison Initiative

By Kristina Hall

In 1860, Bard College, then known as St. Stephens' College, was founded. Overlooking the Hudson River in New York, the college’s function was to prepare young men for seminary, and over the years has evolved its curriculum into "higher intellectual and artistic goals." The very prestigious Bard College of today embraces science, arts, music, dance, film, and other liberal art disciplines.

The Institute of Writing & Thinking was born from visionaries within Bard College and, in 1999 many of the founders of this particular Institute formed the Bard Prison Initiative.  Image courtesy wgss.artsci.wustl.edu

The Bard Prison Initiative was created so that incarcerated men and women could have the opportunity to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentences. The curriculum and academic standards are as rigorous as Bard College, and the employment rate of prisoners released with Bard College degrees is quite high and recidivism is extremely low.

By early 2011, Bard College had granted 157 degrees to inmate participants who had participated in the Bard Prison Initiative and nearly 500 students have been enrolled in the educational program in five prisons across New York State.

The Bard Prison Initiative is the largest degree-granting, college-in-prison program in the country. Undergraduates from Bard College join Bard faculty members as volunteers in the prison program and offer classes that are related to these volunteer students' experiences with the Bard Prison Initiative.

With the help of a significant private grant, the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison was created to support other innovative college-in-prison programs throughout the country. Wesleyan University in Connecticut and Grinnel College in Iowa have now established programs, and the Consortium plans to establish programs in as many as ten more states within the next five years.

This initiative is one of many projects through which Bard College hopes to inform the public on the importance of liberal arts in prison education.

As former President Bill Clinton observed in his book, Giving, the Bard Prison Initiative "is a good investment in a safer, more productive society,"

The Bard Prison Initiative has received national attention through the media, including a two-part series with PBS and a profile on CBS's 60 Minutes.