In preparation for my visit to the 11th annual commencement ceremony of the Bard Prison Initiative, I sat down for a conversation with Donnell Hughes, an alumnus of the program. BPI, as it’s called, gives inmates at six prisons around New York state the opportunity to study in person with professors not only from Bard College, but from MIT, Harvard, Columbia, Vassar and local community colleges.
It’s one of only a few dozen programs around the country that actually awards college degrees to prisoners — a few thousand per year out of the 2.3 million people in prison.
I was expecting to hear a story of redemption from Hughes, and he has one. I wasn’t expecting to hear a full-throated defense of the liberal arts.
Hughes grew up in the Bronx, N.Y. “Before I went to prison, my life was pretty much in turbulence,” he said. “I was in the streets. I was a drug dealer. I was living a fast life.” That fast life didn’t last long.
“I did 20 years in prison and I went to prison when I was 17 years old,” he told me simply. At the age when many young people are preparing for college, Hughes instead became one of the 1 in 15 black men who are incarcerated (the figure for whites is 1 in 106). He was sentenced for two crimes, first-degree manslaughter and sale of narcotics. And mandatory sentencing laws meant he would spend his entire youth atoning for his crimes, while others are busy getting an education, working, starting families and contributing to their communities.