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The Bard Prison Initiative-Offering College Degrees in Prison

In the United States 650,000 inmates are released from prison every year-nearly 68 percent of them are rearrested within three years of release. Although studies have largely found that employment has a significant effect in reducing the recidivism rate, or the rate an ex-offender relapses into criminal behavior, low reading and technological literacy levels and the stigma of being an ex-offender in the eyes of potential employers, largely prevents ex-offenders from getting a job. Initiatives, such as Ban the Box which encourage public and private employers to remove the check box from their hiring applications asking if applicants have a criminal record, do help destigmatize an ex-offender’s criminal history. Unfortunately many states do not widely acknowledge these initiatives including Indiana, which recently passed SB 312: a bill that prevents municipalities from enacting Ban the Box ordinances. Fazed out of the job market, ex-offenders are often left with no other choice but to return to crime to provide for themselves and their families.

However, recent prison reform movements that offer college credit to inmates have been gaining traction due to their effectiveness in reducing recidivism rates. Bard College has spearheaded the effort through its Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program which currently provides an accredited liberal arts college education to over 300 inmates across New York. Although students of BPI are all inmates at one of six prisons across New York State, the course material and academic standards match the equivalent classes taught to traditional undergraduates at Bard College. To date, BPI has awarded over 430 associates and bachelor’s degrees to BPI students and has all but eliminated the recidivism risk amongst its students who recidivate at a rate of under 2 percent.

BPI draws its success through its perfect combination between providing ex-offenders a college education and empowering them with the opportunity to genuinely improve their lives. Although inmates often return to their criminal behavioral patterns due to the relationships they maintain in and out of prison, Kathy Fox, Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont and the program leader for the university’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program states that, “higher education can change the equation for motivated prisoners who otherwise have few career choices when they are released.” Beyond the practical benefits of a college degree, the liberal arts education itself directly engages students in a constant conversation about the value the pursuit of knowledge has on their lives. This pursuit of knowledge provides inmates a critical alternative to their criminal behaviors and students including Dyjuan Tatro, who has spent the last 11 years at Eastern Correctional Facility in New York, tend to fully immerse themselves into their studies. In a testimonial for BPI, Tatro states that, “I wake up in the morning, and I don’t say to myself, 'I'm in prison'… I try to think of it like I'm in college. And you can't entirely separate the two out, but it's healthier to think about it that way. It gives you meaning and it gives you purpose."

The success of BPI soon catalyzed into a wider coalition known as The Consortium for Liberal Arts in Prison which has grown to include universities and colleges across the country including Yale, Washington University, Wesleyan University, University of Vermont, and local Indiana schools Notre Dame and Holy Cross. Member schools of the Consortium model their prison education programs after BPI’s success by offering college credit and college degrees which provides their students with much needed motivation to leave their criminal history behind as they realize, many for the first time, that they are capable of obtaining a college degree and understanding the economic advantages of having one.

BPI and the Consortium have proven that providing college education is an effective method to rehabilitate. Although not all students graduate with a degree, students are released back into society with the tools, knowledge, and the desire to make positive changes in their communities and in their own lives.  

Kathleen Taylor