Alumni News

BPI Upstate Reentry Resident Shawn Young ’19 Talks Care, Concern, and Community on Radio Kingston’s Good Work Hour

For formerly incarcerated individuals returning to their communities, “clean, safe, and stable” housing is crucial, says Shawn Young ’19, upstate reentry resident for the Bard Prison Initiative. Speaking to his experience as a Bard alumnus through the Bard Prison Initiative, Young told the Good… Read More 

‘Anything is possible.’ [Student] from Middletown won appeal after earning college, paralegal degree behind bars

A Middletown man and former convict is sharing his unconventional story of success in hopes of inspiring others, after earning his college and paralegal degree behind bars – and winning his own appeal.

Derek Brown was 18 years old when a prison sentence for burglary changed his life forever.

“Psychologically, it was shocking, shocking to my conscience,” he says.

At the time, Brown was in ninth grade and working toward his GED after several setbacks, including the death of his grandmother who raised him as a child.

“That’s when the downward spiral started,” he says. “The eventual outcome was a 16-year prison sentence, unfortunately.”

Brown says he pleaded guilty in 2011 in Sullivan County to what he thought would be a 12-year sentence, which instead turned out to be 16 years behind bars.

He ended up at Coxsackie Correctional Facility where a flyer for the Bard Prison Initiative gave the teen an unexpected new direction.

“Everything happens for a reason. Honestly, I don’t think I would have ever gone to college if I didn’t go to prison,” he says.

Brown went on to finish his associate degree, while studying law and earning a paralegal certificate.

In 2020, he filed for an appeal in his own case and won.

“I was able to re-argue my appeal saying my guilty plea wasn’t under proper information from the court, challenging the conflict of interest between the judge and victim in my case,” he says.

Brown is now 29 years old and was released last year after serving 10 years in prison.

He’s taking classes toward his bachelor’s degree at Bard in Brooklyn and hopes to continue studying law at Columbia University.

He’s sharing his story as a message of hope for anyone in need of a second chance.

“It’s never too late to change a mindset. If you truly want something and you strive for it and you believe in what you’re working towards, anything is possible,” he says.

Studies show college prison programs have high success rates nationwide when it comes to lowering re-offense rates and helping incarcerated individuals find jobs when they’re released.

Event | Alumni Affairs

Learning to Code: Alumni Reflect on Their Experience in BPI’s Restart Program

BPI launched Restart in 2018 through the generous support of the National Science Foundation to build bridges between computer science training in prison and computer science entrepreneurialism after prison. Through the Restart program, BPI explored the question: "does informal learning offer an under-utilized pathway for… Read More 

BPI and College Behind Bars in The Appeal

Rodney Spivey-Jones from documentary with The Appeal, Justice in America, and College Behind Bars logos to the right of him.

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 Wesley Caines ’09 along with filmmakers Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein to talk about education in prisons, the Bard Prison Initiative, and the documentary College Behind Bars.

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4/29/2019

Justice in America Episode 30: A Conversation with Rodney Spivey-Jones and Max Kenner

In this episode, Josie Duffy Rice and her producer, Florence Barrau-Adams, travel to Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York, to interview Rodney Spivey-Jones ’17 and Max Kenner ’01 about the Bard Prison Initiative and Bard College.

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4/29/2019

Op-Ed – College Programs in Prison Show the Value of Educating Every American

Prisons, BPI graduate Rodney-Spivey Jones ’17 writes, should be institutions of learning, not ‘wastelands’ that willfully overlook human potential.

READ MORE

News | Alumni News

Alumni Address: BPI Alum Delivers Remarks for Public Health Graduates

Hancy Maxis ‘15 was voted to address the faculty, administrators, and his fellow students, along with their families and friends at the virtual graduation ceremony for Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Health Policy and Management Department. BPI faculty, staff, and alumni tuned… Read More 

Justice in America Episode 30: A Conversation with Rodney Spivey-Jones and Max Kenner

In this episode, Josie Duffy Rice and her producer, Florence Barrau-Adams, travel to Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York, to interview Rodney Spivey-Jones and Max Kenner about the Bard Prison Initiative and Bard College.

In January 2020, Josie Duffy Rice and her producer, Florence Barrau-Adams, traveled to Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York, to interview Rodney Spivey-Jones and Max Kenner. Max is the founder and executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, and Rodney received his bachelor’s degree from Bard College in 2017 through the Bard Prison Initiative. Rodney has been incarcerated for 17 years and is currently incarcerated at Fishkill. Both are featured in the PBS documentary series College Behind Bars. They joined Josie to discuss why Max started BPI 20 years ago, Rodney’s experience as part of BPI, and what he hopes to do upon his release.

Listen to podcast below:

Read the full transcript here

Justice in America is available on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Sticher, GooglePlay Music, Spotify, and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Facebook and Twitter.

Op-Ed – College Programs in Prison Show the Value of Educating Every American

Prisons, one graduate writes, should be institutions of learning, not ‘wastelands’ that willfully overlook human potential.

by Rodney-Spivey Jones ’17
Opinion Contributor

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at a library table with several other tutors, discussing strategies for supporting first-year Bard College students. One colleague suggested that we organize a workshop to introduce students to creative writing. Another said we should teach sentence structure and paragraph cohesion. Mentally, I took a step back for a moment and really looked: Here we were, 10 men surrounded by books and the tapping of computer keys discussing tutoring strategies inside a New York state prison.

I have been incarcerated since I was 19—nearly 18 years. I know that many Americans are convinced that the conditions in which incarcerated men and women like me live—the stifling heat and the frigid cold, the enforced idleness, the abuse that sometimes leads to death—are well-deserved, that all of this is justice. If prisons are supposed to be finely tuned instruments of punishment, they succeed 100 percent of the time.

But if prisons are meant to rehabilitate, they are failing. They destroy mental health and crush dignity, right before propelling us back out into the free world—broken and disillusioned. Indeed, the national recidivism rate is 83 percent; in New York, more than 40 percent of people released from prison are back in prison within three years. The doors to prison are well-worn turnstiles and everyone pays the price—$50 billion per year—over and over again.

As a country we could try to imagine a society that throws no one away, an America determined to educate every one of its citizens regardless of criminal history. Prisons—if they must exist at all—should be institutions of learning, where incarcerated citizens consider the importance of community building and civic engagement. They should be universities, not vast wastelands of soul-crushing misery and discarded human potential.

“Education is the purest form of rehabilitation,” Anthony J. Annucci, acting commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, has rightly observed. He was referring to programs like the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), through which I earned a Bard College bachelor’s degree. Many who share his view rely on recidivism rates to measure success. Reduced recidivism means improved public safety. Among BPI alumni the recidivism rate is just 2 percent, a fraction of the state average.

However, the value of a rigorous liberal arts education is greater than reduced recidivism and tax savings, greater than getting jobs and staying out of trouble. In the classroom we begin the heavy lifting of self-examination, considering our place within and effect on the world. Struggling to parse difficult texts gives us an opportunity to explore the human condition, and in the process examine layers of our own humanity. In the space that colleges create within prisons we begin to appreciate how our actions, and our absences, affect our communities, and we take these lessons with us.

After leaving prison, many BPI alumni join nonprofit organizations, participate in local politics, and, to the extent possible, repair the harm we’ve caused. Many of us know that we owe a debt impossible to discharge, yet we attempt to do so because a liberal arts education cultivates and nourishes a sense of accountability and community.

Believing that incarcerated citizens constitute a separate and distinct population can give the country only a false sense of comfort and security. No matter how hard we try, no matter how justified we feel, America cannot amputate more than 2.2 million people from the social body. Ninety-five percent of us will return; if nothing changes, most of us will return ill-prepared to make meaningful contributions to society.

There is a clear choice.

America can have wastelands of discarded human potential, and all of the “success” that produces—high incarceration rates, more crime, and more hurt people—or institutions that promote intellectual growth and civic engagement. We cannot have both.

Rodney Spivey-Jones received his bachelor’s degree from Bard College in 2017 through the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) and is featured in the PBS documentary series “College Behind Bars.” He is incarcerated at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York

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