Perspectives

Out of the Ashes

The Rise of the Bard Prison Initiative

Until 1994, the U.S. federal government supported nearly 400 “college-in-prison” programs. But that all changed when President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that year, cutting off federal support and funding for the programs. Pretty much overnight, the programs disappeared.

Inmate Alan Lee inspects finished cabinets at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa.
AP IMAGES/THE HAWK EYE, SCOTT MORGAN 
Inmate Alan Lee inspects finished cabinets at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa, in November 2003. A collaboration between Iowa prison inmates and Habitat for Humanity to build kitchen cabinets for low-income housing has expanded to include Southeastern Community College as a partner.

The New York programs endured a degree of devastation typical among the 50 states. In April 1994, each of New York’s 70 state prisons had a college within it; by that September, none did.

A handful of privately funded college-in-prison programs have begun filling the void left behind. One of the most notable of these programs is the Bard Prison Initiative. Established in New York in 1995, the initiative runs “colleges” in five state prisons, enrolling about 200 incarcerated students — women and men — full time in a rigorous liberal arts curriculum and awarding both associate and bachelor’s degrees.

Max Kenner, who spearheaded the initiative while a student at Bard College and who took over the program’s leadership upon graduation, spoke to a RAND audience about his experience in offering college courses in prisons.

Feeling Burned

The demise of public funding for college-in-prison programs coincided with a larger nationwide shift toward incarceration at the expense of public education, according to Kenner. “In the decade when I was in high school and graduated from Bard, the state of New York divested $350 million from its budget for public education and invested all that — plus $100 million more — in the state prison system.” To Kenner, the shift reflected a growing public cynicism about young people’s ability to mature, learn, and change.

The end result has been a blistering one. “Over the last generation, we have incarcerated more people, for longer and longer periods of time, at younger and younger ages, with less and less ability to improve their lives while in prison,” he said.

What’s more bothersome for Kenner is that the decision to cut funding for college-in-prison programs was made in the face of overwhelming evidence of their value. “These programs were a tremendous success as a piece of public policy. There is a vast body of evidence that nothing went so far or was as cost-effective in reducing prison recidivism and violence within prisons as these publicly funded programs.” One study showed that there was much lower recidivism among those who received degrees, regardless of whether they found a job once they left prison.

Graduates throw their mortarboards into the air at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony inside San Quentin prison in San Quentin, California.
AP IMAGES/ERIC RISBERG 
Graduates throw their mortarboards into the air at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony inside San Quentin prison in San Quentin, California, in June 2002. San Quentin’s college classes started in 1988, the product of a call from a prison chaplain to a nondenominational private school in Oakland.

The programs were also very good as public investments, he pointed out. In its “Three State Recidivism Study” in 1997, the U.S. Department of Education found that every dollar spent on prison-based education returned more than two dollars to society in reduced prison costs. A cost-benefit analysis in Florida found similar results: more than $1.50 return for every dollar invested on average, with the highest return for degree recipients (at $3.50 for every dollar of public investment). Moreover, the federal Pell Grants used for these investments amounted to only one-half of 1 percent of total Pell Grant funding.

The decision to cut funding, Kenner argued, was at best an ethical one but not a rational one. “It was about being tough on criminals, not crime. It was an emotional decision based on the fact that since many low-income parents couldn’t afford to send their own kids to college, why should prisoners get it for free?”

Cooling Ointment

The Bard Prison Initiative focuses on inmates in longer-term prison facilities, both maximum-security and medium-security ones, because such facilities are more “stable,” Kenner explained. “Everyone in such facilities — both prisoners and staff — is invested in having a reasonable relationship with those around them, and the prisoners have had time to come to terms with their incarceration and are around long enough to make it through the rigors of the college programs.”

There is a need for programs in shorter-term facilities as well, however. “Many people are arrested for relatively small crimes, put in a very bad place for a couple of years, and released back into the community, even worse off,” he said. One option the Bard Prison Initiative is considering is a so-called alternatives-to-incarceration program; instead of being sent to, say, Rikers Island for 16 months, low-level offenders would be given the opportunity to take liberal arts courses and, if successful, allowed to go on to complete their studies at Bard.

“Over the last generation, we have incarcerated more people, for longer and longer periods of time, at younger and younger ages, with less and less ability to improve their lives while in prison.”

The current shortage of college-in-prison programs is enormous, Kenner warned. “There is no hope of returning to the historical scale through private money alone; doing so is too hard a sell given the prison population involved.” Still, the initiative is raising money for an institute at Bard to think more systematically about getting other private institutions to contribute to the effort.

Overall, he said, the need is for the federal government to become involved again and to release a portion of its Pell Grants to those who are incarcerated, if only to encourage more private involvement. “An extremely modest public investment would create a massive response from private, nonprofit educational and religious organizations. Such a policy would pay for itself, sharply cutting rates of recidivism and saving the states millions of dollars.” square