Event | National Engagement

BPI in Conversation – 50 Years: The Kerner Commission, Mass Incarceration & College-in-Prison

This lunchtime conversation took place on October 27th at 12pm eastern.

Author and advocate Reverend Vivian Nixon; MacArthur Fellow, founder of Freedom Reads, and poet Reginald Dwayne Betts Esq; and BPI founder and executive director Max Kenner joined in a conversation moderated by historian Dr. Elizabeth Hinton about the pivotal era in racial justice and punitive politics following the 1968 Kerner Commission report— the making of mass incarceration, the rise, fall and rise again of college-in-prison, and the failures of liberal reform. More than 50 years later, we are on the brink of what could be a new era, but we have also been here before. Where do go from here? And how does college-in-prison help cultivate what the Kerner Commission called “new will” in the long Black freedom struggle?

With opening remarks from Eisenhower Foundation president, Alan Curtis.


Panelist bios

Vivian D. Nixon is Writer in Residence at The Square One Project. She contributes to the Racial Justice and Abolition Democracy (RJAD) Project and the narrative of racial reckoning. Recently retired, Vivian gained 20-years of leadership experience at College & Community Fellowship (CCF), a nonprofit that helps women with criminal convictions earn college degrees. She enrolled in CCF as a student upon her release from prison. In 2006, she became executive director, exponentially increasing the organization’s resources and impact. The CCF community made significant contributions to public policy initiatives that restored Pell grant eligibility to incarcerated college students.

During the time Vivian spent in prison she was moved to write and speak about issues that promote spiritual, physical, and economic health for women who are subject to structurally biased social systems. In her new role as a writer, she tries to break through walls of stigma and reveal the wisdom these women offer to a world that often overlooks their worth. Vivian earned an MFA from Columbia School of the Arts and has received the John Jay Medal for Justice, the Ascend Fellowship at the Aspen Institute, the Soros Justice Fellowship, and the Pen America Writing for Justice Fellowship. In May 2021, she was granted an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Bard College.

Reginald Dwayne Betts is the founder and director of the Freedom Reads. A poet and lawyer, he is the author of four books. His latest collection of poetry, Felon, was awarded the American Book Award and an NAACP Image Award. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, an Emerson Fellow at New America, and a Fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2021. He holds a J.D. from Yale Law School.

Max Kenner is founder and executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) — among the largest, longest-standing, and most influential college-in-prison institutions in the United States.

A leading advocate for the restoration of college-in-prison, Kenner is also co-founder of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, which supports colleges and universities in establishing college-in-prison projects nationwide, and also of the Bard Microcollege, which establishes rigorous, tuition-free college opportunity within urban areas in partnership with community-based institutions.

At Bard College, Kenner serves as Vice President for Institutional Initiatives and Advisor to the President on Public Policy & College Affairs. He has served on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New York State Council on Community Re-Entry and Reintegration since its inception. He is the recipient of many awards and under his stewardship, BPI has figured prominently in the media, including most recently when BPI and its students were subjects of the acclaimed documentary film College Behind Bars which aired nationally on PBS in November 2019.

Elizabeth Hinton is a historian of American inequality who is considered one of the nation’s leading experts on policing and mass incarceration. Hinton’s past and current scholarship provides a deeper grasp of the persistence of poverty, urban violence, and racial inequality in the United States. She is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Yale University and Professor of Law at Yale Law School.

In her first book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press), Hinton traces the implementation of federal law enforcement programs beginning in the mid-1960s that transformed domestic social policies and laid the groundwork for the expansion of the U.S. prison system. From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime received numerous awards and recognition, including the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize from the Phi Beta Kappa Society and being named to the New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2016, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, A Wall Street Journal Favorite Book of the Year, a Publishers Weekly Favorite Book of the Year, and a Choice Outstanding Title of the Year. Hinton’s most recent book, America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s (Liveright), examines the persistence of systemic racism and one of its primary consequences: the so-called urban riot.

Hinton is often called upon share her expertise on matters related to crime control policy, law enforcement, and racism. She has worked with the National Network for Safe Communities, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Vera Institute of Justice, and other law enforcement and crime control institutions at all levels to broaden the terms of debate and inform effective policy choices. Hinton’s articles and op-eds can be found in the pages of the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban HistoryThe New York TimesThe Atlantic, The New York Times Book ReviewThe Los Angeles TimesThe Boston ReviewThe Nation, and Time. In addition to numerous public lectures across the United States, Hinton’s radio and television appearances include Democracy Now!, The Takeaway, On the MediaThe Open Mind, C-SPAN Book TV, and C-SPAN’s After Words. She also co-edited The New Black History: Revisiting the Second Reconstruction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) with the late historian Manning Marable. Hinton served as lead organizer of the landmark “Behind the Gates: The Past and Future of Prison Education at Harvard” Conference in March 2018, as well as “Radical Commitments: The Life and Legacy of Angela Davis” Conference at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in October 2019.

Before joining the Yale faculty, Hinton was a Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. After receiving her Ph.D. in United States History from Columbia University in 2013, Hinton spent two years as a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Michigan Society of Fellows and Assistant Professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. Her research has received support from the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Alan Curtis, President of the Eisenhower Foundation, co-authored the Crimes of Violence Task Force Report of President Lyndon Johnson’s National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. He was Executive Director of President Jimmy Carter’s interagency Urban and Regional Policy Group and Urban Policy Advisor to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Patricia Roberts Harris, the first African American woman to be appointed a Cabinet Secretary. Dr. Curtis has led human rights delegations to Tibet, Uyghur East Turkestan and China – and police reform delegations to Japan. He has authored, edited or co-edited many books – including Healing Our Divided Society; Locked in the Poorhouse; Patriotism, Democracy and Common Sense; American Violence and Public Policy; Criminal Violence; and Violence, Race and Culture. Dr. Curtis presently is replicating evidence-based youth development models like Quantum Opportunities in American cities. He holds an A.B. in Economics from Harvard, an M.Sc. in Economics from the University of London and a Ph.D. in Criminology and Urban Policy from the University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at alancurtis@eisenhowerfoundation.org.
Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report was
published by Temple University Press in 2018.

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