The Bard Prison Initiative: Reducing Recidivism and Changing Lives

By Christopher Zoukis

The New York-based Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) is one of the largest prison-based higher education programs of its kind.  While serving their prison sentences, participants study rigorous coursework and work toward earning college degrees.  The program offers access to higher education to both incarcerated men and women who want to pursue their education and increase their chances of finding a good job and enjoying a more rewarding life upon their release.  In this way, the program’s mission is to employ education as a vehicle for change—changing people’s futures and the criminal justice system itself.   Image courtesy www.jjay.cuny.edu

Introduction to the Bard College Prison Program

According to the program’s website, the initiative “enrolls incarcerated women and men in academic programs that lead to degrees from Bard College” (bpi.bard.edu/faqs/).  Courses are instructed by faculty from Bard College as well as other area colleges at five participating prisons.  Participants work to earn Associate of Arts or Bachelor of Arts degrees.  The program offers classes in the arts, humanities, mathematics, and sciences and offers general education coursework that fulfills degree requirements.  An important feature of the program is that coursework is not altered for the prison population. “Incarcerated students are held to identical academic standards as conventional undergraduates at Bard College. The substance of the courses is not tailored to the incarcerated students and is the same as offered on the main Bard campus.”  In this way, incarcerated students receive the same education as if they attended classes outside of prison.

Faculty and Students

Most of the initiative’s courses are taught by Bard College faculty members.  However, many faculty members from other colleges like Columbia or area community colleges are frequently invited to teach at one of the prisons.  Each faculty member is paid for their instruction; they do not volunteer as in the case of some prison education programs.

Students must have a high school diploma or its equivalent to be considered for admission to this competitive program.  While the initiative regularly has about 250 enrollees from the various prisons it serves, there are often more applicants than the program can enroll.  According the website, “there are ten applications for each available spot. Many gain admission after more than one application.” Applicants must demonstrate a willingness to work hard, pass a written exam, and meet for a personal interview. 

Education Changes Lives

Some program participants are released before they can complete their degrees; however, these students often continue their studies with Bard College upon their release.  Many students complete their degrees, but must finish their sentences before re-entering society. In both cases, higher education has had a transformative impact on the lives of participants.  The initiative receives its funding from private and philanthropic organizations.  The initiative depends on this funding to continue its operation. 

According to the initiative’s website, “College is the most effective – and inexpensive – way of helping people escape cycles of crime and incarceration.”  Though the state and federal budgets cut funding to prison education programs some fifteen years ago, newly organized programs like the BPI program have obtained alternative funding to prove that education can change life for incarcerated individuals.

From State to National Initiative

BPI has demonstrated a significant level of success reducing recidivism.  “Among formally incarcerated Bard students, fewer than 2% have returned to prison.”  This outcome is not only good news for individuals who have changed their lives, but for the state as well.  On average, it costs $29,000 annually to maintain each incarcerated individual.  Fewer people returning to prison translates into cost savings along with many other benefits of helping people change their lives by becoming productive members of society. 

Consequently, Bard College is planning to employ its model in other states.  A new grant will allow it to bring higher education to prisoners in states like Iowa and Connecticut.  The program’s administrators are planning to adapt their model to prisons in roughly ten more states within half a decade.  By expanding its reach, BPI is “is committed to closing the revolving door of crime and imprisonment and changing lives with education.”  They are a proven prison education success story that is hoping to bring their model to prisons in other states.