The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) creates the opportunity for incarcerated men and women to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentences. The academic standards and workload are rigorous, based on an unusual mix of attention to developmental skills and ambitious college study. The rate of post-release employment among the program’s participants is high and recidivism is stunningly low. By challenging incarcerated men and women with a liberal education, BPI works to redefine the relationship between educational opportunity and criminal justice.
As the largest program of its kind in the United States, BPI enrolls nearly 300 incarcerated men and women across a full spectrum of academic disciplines, and offers over 70 courses each semester. To date, there are over 430 Bard College alumni who have received degrees through BPI.
BPI began in 1999, when then-student Max Kenner set out to engage Bard College in the effort to restore meaningful education to the prison system. At the start, Kenner organized other Bard students to volunteer as tutors in local prisons. In 2001, BPI outgrew its role as a student organization and became an academic program of the College. In 2005, BPI awarded the first Bard College degrees to incarcerated candidates. It now operates a network of 6 satellite campuses across New York State, engaging students up through their release and after.
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. Current Consortium members include Wesleyan University, Goucher College, Grinnell College, Holy Cross College at Notre Dame and the University of Notre Dame, Washington University, the University of Puget Sound and Tacoma Community College. The Consortium continues to seek partners to expand and replicate our national model.
The Initiative is one of a number of projects at Bard College that seek to strengthen the importance of the liberal arts in public life. These include early college high schools in New York City, Newark, Cleveland, and Baltimore, an early college program in New Orleans, an honors college at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, and liberal arts colleges in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Graduates of the BPI program have consistently succeeded after release from prison. Some have chosen to work in human service organizations, serving people with AIDS, or becoming professional counselors for residents in city-based alternatives to incarceration. Several alumni have worked their way up to management positions in an innovative, for-profit electronics recycling company. Other graduates have continued their educations, earning scholarships and working toward additional academic and professional degrees. As former President Bill Clinton observed in his book Giving, BPI “is a good investment in a safer, more productive society.”