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Month: September 2015

New Film, Human, features Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is featured in the recent film, Human. The film was created by French photographer, journalist, and environmentalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand. The film is a collection of stories from individuals from around the world about their human experience.  Bryan Stevenson is one of those individuals.

In his segment, Stevenson talks about race, poverty, and the death penalty. He speaks poignantly about his experience with people on death row and how that experience has taught him that no one is beyond redemption. He says: “I’ve met a lot of people who may never get out, they may always be a threat to themselves or others, but I’ve never met anyone I could say was beyond redemption, beyond hope, beyond the possibility of restoration.”

Watch his segment below.

The film was released for free and can be watched on YouTube by clicking here.

To learn more about the film click here.

Liberal Arts in Prison: Bard Prison Initiative

On September 17, 2015, a panel discussion between Bard Prison Initiative founder and director Max Kenner and three graduates of BPI reflected on the outcomes of the program over the past ten years.

The Bard Prison Initiative is a program that allows incarcerated men and women to pursue liberal arts degrees from Bard College while in prison. Founded by Max Kenner while he was a student at Bard in 1999, BPI became one of the College’s official academic programs in 2001. BPI receives an overwhelming majority of its funding from private support and donors.

BPI consists of six satellite campuses across New York State, and each semester over sixty courses are offered to the roughly 300 students enrolled in the program. As of 2015, BPI has granted almost 350 degrees to students in the program. Admission to the program is extremely competitive, and applicants must hold a high school diploma to apply; many applicants apply multiple times before being granted a spot in the program.

Woodbourne Correctional Facility inmates and Bard College students during class Story: The Bard Prison Initiative Former inmate Carlos Rosario, 35-year-old husband and father of four, was released from Woodbourne Correctional Facility after serving more than 12 years for armed robbery. Rosado is one of the students participating in the Bard Prison Initiative, a privately-funded program that offers inmates at five New York State prisons the opportunity to work toward a college degree from Bard College. The program, which is the brainchild of alumnus Max Kenner, is competitive, accepting only 15 new students at each facility every other year. Carlos Rosario received the Bachelor of Arts degree in social studies from the prestigious College Saturday, just a few days after his release. He had been working on it for the last six years. His senior thesis was titled "The Diet of Punishment: Prison Food and Penal Practice in the Post-Rehabilitative Era," Rosado is credited with developing a garden in one of the few green spaces inside the otherwise cement-heavy prison. In the two years since the garden's foundation, it has provided some of the only access the prison's 800 inmates have to fresh vegetables and fruit. Rosario now works for a recycling company in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Photo © Stefan Falke

A Bard Prison Initiative class at one of the program’s six campuses. Photo © Stefan Falke

According to the program’s website, graduates of the program have “consistently succeeded after release from prison,” with some working their way up to management positions in organizations, while others “have continued their educations, earning scholarships and working toward additional academic and professional degrees.”

Not only does BPI provide its participants and graduates with more opportunities and a chance to pursue a college degree, but it also is a cost-effective, money-saving venture. BPI’s website states that “among formally incarcerated Bard students, less than 2% have returned to prison. The estimated cost per person, per year of the BPI program is a small fraction of the price of continuing incarceration. It saves tax payers money, while increasing public safety.” Lower rates of recidivism means overall lower costs of the criminal justice system.

The three graduates of BPI in the panel discussion all attested to the changes in their lives after graduating from BPI and being released from prison. BPI’s website states that one of the program’s largest benefits is that upon “returning home with confidence and hope, participants are able to find and hold satisfying jobs in a range of fields.”

To watch the panel discussion, click here.

To visit Bard Prison Initiative’s website, click here.

To watch a video commemorating BPI’s ten year anniversary in 2011, click here.


Death Penalty Sentences Concentrated to a Few Counties in the U.S.

twopercent1According the the Death Penalty Information Center’s recent report, “Death Sentences Drop in Three High-Use Counties As Prosecutors Change,” as of 2013, 56 percent of death sentences were given out in only 2 percent of U.S. counties. However, due to recent District Attorney changes in three counties that were included in that 2 percent, the number of annual death sentences is noticeably declining.  The three counties highlighted in this report from DPIC are Harris County, Texas, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, and Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania. Since the DA changes, Harris County went from 12 death sentences per year to just 1 per year. Oklahoma County went from more than 2 death sentences a year to only 3 in the past 6 years. And Philadelphia County went from more than 9 death sentences per year to only 3 in the past 5 years. The report stresses the impact that individual prosecutors have had in these “high-use” counties.

Watch the 2013 video, created by the DPIC, below explaining how 2 percent of counties produce the majority of death sentences in the U.S.

To read “Death Sentences Drop in Three High-Use Counties As Prosecutors Change” click here.

To read “Why Three Counties That Loved the Death Penalty Have Almost Stopped Pursuing It,” from the Marshall Project, click here.

To read the 2013 executive summary of the report “How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Cases at Enormous Cost to All” click here.

Just Mercy Reaches Local Police

Madison’s local CBS affiliate, WISC-TV3, posted a video editorial about UW-Madison’s Go Big Read program. Editorial director, Neil Heinen, had this to say about the selection of Just Mercy as the 2015-2016 common read: “It was a wise choice for the book program. It was a wiser choice for Chiefs Riseling and Koval to take advantage of the Big Read in their departments. And yes, it is another example of the Wisconsin Idea.”

Watch the editorial below.

For a transcript of the editorial click here.

Students and Inmates Gain New Perspectives in Inside-Out Program

A recent NPR article describes the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which over one hundred colleges and universities worldwide will participate in this year.

Founded in 1997, the Inside-Out Program consists of traditional college students – “outside students” – taking semester-long courses alongside inmates – “inside students.” The Inside-Out Program’s website lays out one of the principle purposes of the program: it “creates avenues for social change through education and civic engagement” and “opens the door for people to gain an education that emphasizes collaborative learning and problem-solving.”


An Inside-Out course in progress. Source: NPR.

The courses help create dialogue between these outside and inside students that in turn help break down traditional stereotypes and misconceptions held by and about both groups. Lori Pompa, one of the founders of the Inside-Out Program, says, “What dialogue does is it helps to make the walls between us more permeable.”

One of the inmates active in the Inside-Out Program, Paul, says that the program “humanizes people on both sides of these walls.” Paul was the inmate who suggested to Pompa that the conversations happening between visiting Temple University students and inmates continue, spurring Pompa to found the Inside-Out Program. The program’s benefits align with the push for mroe

Although Paul is serving a life-sentence, he is pursuing his master’s degree. “My mission in life now is to leave a better legacy than the one I had left when I came to prison,” says Paul, noting that the Inside-Out Program “gives you the freedom to care again. The freedom to feel again.”

To visit the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program’s website, click here.

To read the full NPR story on the Inside-Out Program, click here.

To watch and hear Lori Pompa discuss the program, click here.

Wisconsin Legislators Circulate Juvenile Justice Bill

As of today, Wisconsin Senator Jerry Petrowski, Representative Rob Hutton, and Representative Mary Czaja are circulating a bill to attempt to reduce recidivism rates among non-violent, first-time 17 year olds.

The bill would cause this type of offender to file their cases in juvenile court rather than in adult court, but excludes violent/repeat offenders who are 17.

“Wisconsin is one of only 9 states that still prosecutes all 17 year olds as adults,” says Senator  Petrowski. “Young people with adult criminal records are less likely to graduate from high school, they have difficulty finding future employment, and face barriers to higher education and military service. The kids we’re talking about are non-violent and are having their first brush with the legal system and they deserve a second chance to become responsible adults.”

Judges will still hold the ability to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to send these offenders to the juvenile or adult system under this bill.

The bill is ultimately intended to reduce crime rates in Wisconsin, reduce recidivism rates among non-violent, first time 17 year old offenders, and save taxpayers money in the long run.

To read the news release put out by the Wisconsin Legislature today, click here.

To read the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s blog post about the bill, click here.

San Quentin State Prison and the Prison University Project

A recent NPR story, “Why aren’t there more higher ed programs behind bars?” by Eric Westervelt, highlights the Prison University Project (PUP) at San Quentin State Prison in California. The privately funded program helps inmates attain associate’s degrees. Over 100 instructors from higher education institutions across California donate their time to teach college courses at San Quentin. The inmates pay no tuition or fees and the PUP program provides all necessary materials such as books and writing utensils. Since 1996 140 inmates have earned degrees.

Jerome Boone, a current student of the PUP program, had this to say about the program: “the better we do in here, the better we are when we exit,” he says. “If we come in here and just stay the people we are when we come in, you know, without any growth or insight or any opportunity to better ourselves, we’re gonna get out that same person.”

PUP executive director, Jody Lewen, says that statistics confirm Boone’s comment. According to Lewen, in California, 65% released prisoners return to prison within three years. For PUP participants, only 17% return to prison, and none have returned for violent crime.

Some advocates for higher education in prisons argue that small investments save money in the long run. In the article, Lois Davis, a researcher for the RAND Corporation, explains that her research “has found that participation in any level of education behind bars reduced risk of being re-incarcerated by 13 percent.” She goes on to say that “for every dollar invested in a prison education program it will ultimately save taxpayers between four and five dollars in re-incarceration costs.”

The video below profiles the PUP Program.

To read “Why aren’t there more higher ed programs behind bars?” click here.

To read about the Prison University Project click here.

First-Year Students Receive Copies of Just Mercy at Chancellor’s Convocation


The Class of 2019 was welcomed today at the Chancellor’s Convocation, held at the Kohl Center. This year’s theme was “Be the Change,” and those speaking at the ceremony urged the newest class of Badgers – and all other students, faculty, and staff – to become leaders in creating a more equal and fair society.

First-year students were given a copy of this year’s Go Big Read book, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, upon exiting the Kohl Center by faculty and staff.


First-year students leave the Kohl Center with their copies of Just Mercy.

The ceremony was hosted by Aaron Bird Bear, interim assistant dean for student diversity programs in the School of Education, and speakers included Chancellor Rebecca Blank, poet and student Hiwot Adilow, and Patrick J. Sims, who is the vice provost for diversity and climate and a professor of theatre and drama.


Faculty and staff giving away copies of Just Mercy as students leave the Kohl Center after Convocation.


Prepping to give away copies of Just Mercy.