What is the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI)?
It is a division of Bard College that enrolls incarcerated women and men in academic programs that lead to degrees from Bard College.
How many people participate?
The program currently enrolls 300 incarcerated men and women full time with the college. More than 60 academic classes are offered every semester across six medium- and maximum-security prisons in New York State. Launched with fifteen students nearly 15 years ago, the program has grown steadily each year, and expanded nationally through the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison.
Is the program cost effective?
Extremely. The criminal justice system is staggeringly expensive. As a country we spend $212 billion dollars annually to apprehend, try, and incarcerate prisoners. In recent years, the United States has maintained a prison population of more than 2.3 million people, with the average annual cost of over $29,000 per person (in many states, including New York, the cost is much higher). And while America has the longest and most punitive sentencing structures in the modern world, 750,000 inmates are released each year. Nationwide, nearly 68 out of every one hundred prisoners are rearrested within three years of release, and more than half return to prison. Research indicates that these high and expensive rates of recidivism fall to less than 22% if prisons offer significant educational opportunity to incarcerated men and women. Among formerly incarcerated Bard students, less than 2% have returned to prison. The estimated cost per person, per year of the BPI program is a small fraction of the price of continuing incarceration. It saves tax payers money, while increasing public safety.
What are the primary benefits of the program?
Through rigorous study in the humanities, sciences, and the arts, BPI students discover new strength and direction, often fundamentally rethinking their relationship to themselves, their communities, and the world in which we live. Returning home with confidence and hope, participants are able to find and hold satisfying jobs in a range of fields. Some go directly to work in the private sector or social services, while others pursue further education, enrolling in colleges and universities. Regardless of the path they choose, all are radically less likely to return to prison and are far better prepared to lead productive and fulfilling lives when free.
Who can participate?
People in select New York State prisons may apply and are selected based on their ambition and willingness to work hard. To apply, one must have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Admission to BPI is highly competitive — typically there are ten applications for each available spot. Many gain admission after more than one application. The admissions process involves both a written exam and a personal interview.
Does the program consider applicants’ records and release dates during the admissions process?
No. Some accepted students may be released before it would be possible to complete the program and others are likely to remain in prison until well after completion of the degree.
Isn’t the purpose of prison to punish people? Why should we reward wrong doers by providing them with the opportunity to get a degree from an elite, private institution?
Punishment is one important goal of the penal system. Equally important is to provide people a realistic opportunity to assume the responsibility of returning to general society as better parents, neighbors, and citizens. College in prison helps to prevent people from leaving the institution more isolated, embittered, and likely to return to prison.
As Brian Fischer, former New York Commissioner of Corrections and Community Supervision, says: “Education changes people. And, I think that’s what prisons should do, change somebody from one way of thinking to a different way of thinking. . . . It’s the logical view of incarceration; going to prison is the punishment, once in prison it’s our obligation to make [people in prison] better than they were.”
College is the most effective – and inexpensive – way of helping people escape cycles of crime and incarceration.
Who teaches the courses? Are they volunteers?
The courses are taught primarily by Bard College faculty, as well as visiting professors from regional colleges and universities, including local community colleges, Columbia University, and NYU. BPI faculty are universally compensated for their teaching and are not volunteers.
Do professors customize their classes at the prisons?
No. 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.
What kind of courses are offered?
The program offers a liberal arts curriculum, including literature, foreign language, philosophy, history and the social sciences, mathematics, science, and the arts.
Are the courses designed to help inmates enter the job market?
BPI's primary focus is not vocational. Rather, it is a college liberal arts program designed to educate participants broadly, so they can think flexibly and critically — skills that support a fulfilling life, as well as professional success. BPI does offer, however, some advanced, employment-oriented training for graduates who are preparing for release.
Are courses offered remotely or over the internet?
No, never. All coursework offered through BPI occurs on-site, in-person, within the six prisons where the college operates.
Can students enrolled in BPI receive degrees?
Yes. In fact, all students who are enrolled in the program fulfill course requirements and work toward either an Associate’s or Bachelor of Arts degree from Bard College. Through 2015, the program has awarded nearly 350 degrees.
How have BPI students fared after their release from prison?
Almost all of those students who were released before they had completed their degrees have continued their education at Bard or many other colleges in the NY metropolitan area. Others are currently enrolled at top academic and professional graduate programs. Many graduates who have been released from prison are fully employed in good jobs, ranging from work at human services organizations to a variety of private businesses. Alumni work in leadership positions serving people who are homeless, suffer from HIV-AIDS, or are themselves formerly incarcerated. Also, a group of BPI alumni now work at a new state-of-the-art recycling plant in Mt. Vernon, NY. Among some notable highlights: a playwriting fellow at the Public Theater; an academic fellow in Ph.D. studies at NYU; and a Yale Divinity student.
How is BPI funded?
Despite the clear public interest, state and federal governments stopped supporting college-in-prison programs over fifteen years ago. BPI depends overwhelmingly on private support. Contributions come from generous individual supporters and philanthropic foundations.
What is the effect of the program’s presence in correctional facilities?
Our students, correctional administration, and staff, as well as others who have been in prison, all report that the college’s presence has a profoundly positive effect on the environment of the institution as a whole. It is not uncommon for inmates in other prisons within the state system to improve their behavior and basic academic skills and seek a transfer to an institution where the college is located.
Bard has also extended college opportunity to correctional facility staff with a new scholarship program that will provide full tuition (and room and board) to Bard College for two children of New York State Department of Correctional Services employees each year.
Are there plans to expand the program?
Yes. In 2009, BPI received a private grant that supported the creation of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison. Through the Consortium, BPI has already helped Wesleyan University (Connecticut), Grinnell College (Iowa), Goucher College (Maryland), and most recently Univeristy of Notre Dame and Holy Cross College (Indiana) to establish and maintain college-in-prison programs. Our aim is to support the development of similar programs in 10 states within the next five years.
What is the goal in expanding the BPI model nationally?
BPI is committed to closing the revolving door of crime and imprisonment and changing lives with education. As a country, we spend hundreds of billions annually on our criminal justice system and have one quarter of the world’s prisoners. Each year, of the three quarters of a million prisoners who are released, anywhere from one half to two thirds are back in prison within only a few years. Nevertheless, we know that change is possible. College-in-prison programs reduce recidivism dramatically. The 2.3 million people who are imprisoned in the United States cannot be wished away. And neither can the 2.7 million children who have an incarcerated mother or father — a number that has quadrupled over the last 25 years. College transforms the daily reality of prison life, and creates, often for the first time, a sense of achievement and hope.