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 250 incarcerated men and women across a full spectrum of academic disciplines, and offers over 50 courses each semester. By 2013, Bard granted nearly 250 degrees to BPI participants and enrolled a total of nearly 550 students.
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 5 satellite campuses across New York, 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. Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Grinnell College in Iowa, Goucher College in Maryland, and the University of Notre Dame and Holy Cross College in Indiana have now established programs, and the Consortium plans to establish programs in as many as ten more states within the next five years.
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 the New York City public school system, a collegiate academy for young people 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.”