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Our Work Continues Despite COVID-19

Learn how BPI is continuing coursework using a distance model, building and maintaining a virtual community, publishing community voices and tapping into our longtime work in public health, and supporting alumni through trying times.

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Our Work

Since our first class at Eastern in 2001, BPI has been reimagining who college is for and where it might lead.

Close up of BPI Student writing in notebook with camera focus on his pen.

What is college for?

The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) works to redefine the availability, affordability, and expectations typically associated with higher education in America.

Since 2001, BPI has created groundbreaking opportunities for college within America’s prison systems. These programs transform the negative impacts of criminal punishment and create radical inroads of access and opportunity to higher learning.

Today, BPI enrolls over 300 incarcerated students full-time in programs that culminate in degrees from Bard College; it offers extensive support for its alumni in and around New York City; and, it has developed a nationwide network of leading universities and colleges to catalyze a transformation in the relationship between education and criminal justice in the United States. BPI’s newest initiative, the Bard Microcollege, expands yet further the scope and impact of this work, delivering high-quality liberal arts education to communities outside of prison through partnerships with community-based institutions.

Who are BPI students?

The BPI student body mirrors that of the prison system at large: students come from communities with the fewest quality educational opportunities that are most impacted by crises of crime and incarceration. The majority were first arrested as children. Few completed high school; most earned their GED in prison. Once enrolled, BPI students engage with the college full-time, embarking on a course of study that is ambitious and matches the breadth and intensity of any undergraduate learning experience.

After returning home, BPI alumni become independent taxpaying citizens. They work in business, the arts, and media; they attend graduate school; they have careers in the human services. Virtually none return to prison. They contribute to their communities in all the ways one might expect of any college graduates.

By The Numbers

Courses offered in prison each year
Bard degrees earned
Colleges or universities partnering in the Consortium

Public Health at BPI

From in-prison classrooms to graduate schools and careers, students and alumni are rising to meet the urgent demand for trained professionals and visionary leaders in public health.

It Starts in the Classroom

BPI alumni in public health, one with a mask, one walking in a hallway.

See how BPI’s Public Health Program prepares students and alumni for careers in public health.

Public Health at BPI 

Community Voices

Public Health Journal with images of contributors.

Through the COVID crisis, we are highlighting BPI’s longstanding work in public health and BPI community voices in response to the virus.

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Current Topics We're Following:

BPI is proud to partner with College and Community Fellowship’s #TurnOnTheTap campaign to restore access to New York’s state-level need-based student grants, the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for incarcerated students.

This movement has taken on renewed urgency following Congress’s reinstatement of Pell Grant access to incarcerated students in 2020. After the federal Pell ban in 1994, New York implemented a ban on TAP eligibility in 1995. As a result, the number of college-in-prison programs in New York fell from over 70 to 4. The bipartisan restoration of Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated students is a clear political endorsement of the value of college-in-prison, signaling to New York that it is past time to also restore TAP.

Learn more about TAP restoration on our blog.

BPI student speaking in class, gesturing with his pen, while other students write notes in the background.

In 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act made people in prison ineligible for Pell Grants. After the ‘94 Crime Bill, state lawmakers followed the federal lead and rescinded state-level tuition assistance programs. College-in-prison, which had been common in prisons across the country, collapsed.

BPI was founded in 1999, in the wake of the decimation of college-in-prison. For 26 years, BPI joined other advocates in championing the return of Pell eligibility for incarcerated students. In 2016, BPI was proud to join the first cohort of sites receiving experimental eligibility through Second Chance Pell. In December 2020 Congress finally restored Pell Grant eligibility as part of the omnibus spending and COVID relief bill.

As public funding of college-in-prison returns to the field the question shifts from Will there be college-in-prison? to What will the field of college-in-prison look like?  With so much at stake, BPI is doubling down on our commitments to national engagement in policy and practice including our summer residency for emerging programs and practitioners.

Learn more about Pell restoration on our blog.

Female BPI student writes in her notebook in class.

In early 2020 BPI began working with lawmakers in New York to change Merit Board eligibility rules so that all incarcerated students can be eligible for early release based on earning college credits. On July 21, 2020 the NYS Assembly passed A9543A to include college credits in the Merit Time Eligibility Criteria. Now, the NYS Senate needs to pass its version of the same bill, S7633.

Learn more about this important amendment to the Merit Board rules, and its disproportionate impact on incarcerated women, on our blog.

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The Appeal

BPI and College Behind Bars in The Appeal

The Appeal featured several segments about BPI in two Justice in America podcast episodes, as well as an op-ed. Check out more details below: 4/22/2019 Justice in America Episode 29: Schools in Prison Josie Duffy Rice and co-host Derecka Purnell are joined by Dyjuan Tatro '18 and… Read More 

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Factually! with Adam Conover #46

College Behind Bars with Max Kenner and Sebastian Yoon

The Bard Prison Initiative is a revolutionary program that provides a rigorous college education to men and women in prison. In one of our most power episodes ever, BPI’s founder Max Kenner and recent graduate Sebastian Yoon join Adam this week to discuss how… Read More 

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Rolling Stone

Incarcerated People Can Do More than Beat Harvard in a Debate

“College Behind Bars,” a new PBS documentary executive-produced by Ken Burns, shines a light on a program that every major university in America should be sponsoring By Jamil Smith When you watch College Behind Bars, which began last night on PBS and concludes tonight, or any… Read More