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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.