Educating prisoners--men and women incarcerated for crimes large and small--has become an important item in the news lately. Recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo, ostensibly inspired by the Bard Prison Initiative and other such programs, has proposed a new financing initiative for opportunities for prisoners to earn higher education degrees while they are serving their time.
My personal interest in the subject has deep roots entirely attributable to my wife, Marie. Marie is a public defender in Baltimore (and a very good one, at that) and started out her legal career as a public defender in Manhattan. In between, she was a prisoners' rights attorney (her favorite oxymoron) in Buffalo and in Washington, DC. In DC, she was the executive director of DC Prisoners Legal Services Project before we moved to Baltimore for my job. In short, Marie, and by extension me, has been involved with this population over her quarter century as an attorney.
Several years ago, Marie became very interested in prisoner education, and was looking into starting a program in Maryland. She contacted Max Kenner, the founder of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), to see what guidance he could give. As an alumnus of Bard College, I had been following the development of this amazing and in many ways heroic effort to provide a high-quality education to the incarcerated in upstate New York. Mr. Kenner offered his advice freely, but Marie was distracted by the illness and death of her mother and maternal grandparents over just two years and was never able to pursue her goals.
With this pedigree, though, my interest grew. I became a minor donor to BPI, and because of that and Marie's interest and the good graces of the Bard Alumni Office, we were invited in 2012 to a BPI commencement at Woodbourne Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison for men.
I have attended dozens of commencements, and the commencement at Woodbourne remains one of the most important events of my life.
We arrived at Woodbourne on a chilly and foggy morning in early June. Marie has a great deal of experience entering prison facilities of all types (local, state, federal, and private) and was surprised at the friendly greeting we received from the correctional staff. They really support this program, apparently. The security clearance was thorough but respectful, extremely respectful. We strolled over to a large tent, which is just about a hallmark of any Bard graduation, and chatted with one of the current BPI students in a Bard-red gown serving as an usher. He and I were thrilled to note that when he graduated, we would both have Bard degrees because the BPI degrees are no different from the one I earned. The only distinction is that at Woodbourne, the degree is Associates because the sentences tend to be shorter there, a grim consideration for those enrolled in four-year degree programs.
Marie made sure we sat away from the families to give them their space, which was energized with excitement. Instead, we sat way in the back with prisoners currently in the BPI program, who were at first bemused and then impressed with Marie. (I was quickly irrelevant.) The commencement was interesting, as all Bard commencements are. Bard's visionary president, Leon Botstein, gave a typically excellent speech that featured an observation that I had never considered before. He said, and I am very much paraphrasing, something along the lines that they can take away your family, they can take away your freedom, and they can even take away your life. They cannot, though, take away the fact that you earned a college degree. Pretty cool.
At some point, seven of the graduates were allowed to speak. The first started off conventionally. He listed those in his life whom he needed to thank for getting him to this point. Then he said he needed to thank one other person, a historical figure. In my mind, I braced myself for the obvious. Would it be Jesus or Mohammed, Jesus or Mohammed? Then, after a dramatic pause, he named his historical influence: John Dewey.
I nearly passed out.
The speech elevated from there. He spoke of philosophical concepts in the context of his own life. I thought, I have never heard a better student speech. This guy is just getting an Associates, and he is in prison! The next six were as good or better. Brilliant, wonderful! A testament to Max Kenner, Leon Botstein, Bard, and the fantastic students and faculty of BPI. I also learned from one of the speeches that my college chum, Delia Mellis, is an English professor with BPI, an added personal thrill. We had our own mini reunion after the ceremony.
Botstein had explained that other prisoner-education initiatives from other institutions had often failed because they were too egalitarian, too thinly spread. Bard, on the other hand, searches for students who are the most intellectually curious and motivated. Notice that they are not necessarily the students with the best grades in high school. Bard's incredible High School Early College program uses a similar criteria. I love this approach because when I was at Bard last century, the joke was that Bard was the college for underachievers. I used to wince at that description, but after decades in higher education, I am proud of it. I hated high school and saw little value in it. I surged at Bard. Now I am a dean. Do the math. Connect the dots.
Since the Woodbourne BPI graduation, I have become tangentially involved in a similar program at Goucher College nearby. I have never been clear on the exact arrangement, but Goucher seems to have received start-up funding from George Soros' Open Society Institute (a major funder of BPI, unlike me) through Bard to extend its longstanding program in Maryland's Jessup Correctional Facility for Women. Now Goucher is offering degree programs for men and women in Jessup, and I am very interested.
The director of the Goucher Prison Education Partnership (GPEP), Amy Roza, invited Marie and me last fall to sit in on some classes at a men's facility and the women's facility at Jessup. The experience was wonderful, and the students were fantastic. It is electrifying to see people hungry (starving?) to learn and to better themselves in a place where just about every aspect of their lives is a conspiracy to destroy their personhood. Only a monster would not be moved.
On March 19th, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Stevenson University will be holding another in its Diverse Perspectives Forum Series. This time, Amy Roza will be bringing faculty and--we hope--students who have been released to talk to Stevenson faculty, students, and staff about GPEP. This event will be eye-opening, and I am very excited.
Prisoner education may be unpopular. It may seem counterintuitive to spend private and public funds on prisoner education. In favor of prisoner education, people make well-researched and unassailable arguments about reduced recidivism and the like. I endorse those arguments, but there is a more important one. Education is what makes us better as a species. We need to educate all who want an education, and educate them to the best of our ability. It is just the right thing to do. It is evolutionary.