Stephen A. Carter
If one has the privilege to repeat this experience more than once, the repetition does improve the requisite farewell speech, but strangely, the obstruction in one’s throat persists. My first experience with the autumn ritual was more than a dozen years ago and was played out on the campus of Bard College located on the Hudson River about 90 miles above New York City. In the spring of this year, my son returned for an alumni weekend where he learned about benefactors at the graduation ceremonies.
Two years back, my “Trendspotting” article addressed a concern that unlike libraries, hospital wings or public parks, prisons have no benefactors. I can think of only a handful of incarceration facilities that are named for an individual. Prisons have a seemingly unending supply of customers, but they rarely have an individual or group that endows an institution with some tangible or intangible gift that changes lives.
For the graduation address this year, Bard had invited Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, to embolden optimistic graduates to use their education to correct social inequities, including the criminal justice system. Not only was the graduation speech a bit different from the traditional “the world is your oyster” challenge, the graduation included acknowledgement that 13 New York prison inmates would be conferred with associate degrees from Bard College.
In past years, many institutions of higher learning worked within the prison environment to provide access to education for prisoners who were inclined to use their time of incarceration to obtain a chance for a better future upon release. However, in 1995, a devastating congressional effort eliminated the funding (such as the Pell Grants) for college programs and effectively ended most college-level programs in prisons. In that year, 350 college-level courses were eliminated in America’s teeming prisons, leaving most prison administrators with nothing to offer colleges as encouragement to continue providing courses to prisoners. Without a financial incentive, most colleges quickly lost interest.
In 1999, as a Bard College student with a penchant for social advocacy, Max Kenner embarked on a process of change one idea at a time. With no financial resources, but in search of a focus for his passion to participate in social improvement, Max Kenner found the prison system of New York State and began what would become a full-time commitment to bring back access to pre-college and university-level education to inmates in New York State prisons.
Following graduation, he approached the Bard administration with a proposal to offer college credits to prison inmates. Leon Botstein, the internationally acclaimed conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and Bard College president, supported his idea. Equipped with office space and a requirement for financial independence, the Bard Prison Initiative was launched with a group of students and faculty who shared his vision for social advocacy.
In 2001, through the financial assistance of the Episcopal Social Services organization and Bard College, 17 prison students in a local state prison were enrolled in the credit-bearing program. By 2006, the program had expanded to an enrollment of 125 students located in three New York State institutions including a long-term maximum custody, a medium custody, and a women’s facility. At the moment, prisoners can receive an associate’s degree from Bard College, but starting this fall, a full bachelor’s degree will be offered that is consistent with degrees that on-campus Bard College students can obtain.
Given that the New York State prison system has more than 75,000 inmates, 125 participating in a degree-based program could seem insignificant. The old story of the child tossing one starfish at a time back into the life-giving sea is a reminder that benefactors come from the hearts of people who see a need and courageously respond without a clue of where the resources to continue will emanate. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates giving away billions is honorable and effective, and a tip of their financial icebergs. Benefactors, like Max Kenner, seem to have the ability to see a problem and a potential outcome without the fear of failure.
Whether too many prisoners or too few dollars, the numbers do matter. Prior to the political intervention that effectively eliminated the college-in-prisons programs in 1995, data demonstrated that the recidivism rate for prisoners that participated in the college programs was 15 percent rather than the average of 60 percent for non-participants. With a return to the population highs of the mid-90s apparently inevitable, prison administrators might do well to call on local college presidents for assistance rather than on politicians who seem to have permanent hearing loss.
An oft-beleaguered politician coined the borrowed title of this article. Perhaps on this point Dan Quayle was correct: “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind.” The challenge of just feeding our increasing prison population consumes so much of our human and financial resources. We need to promote the efforts of institutions like Bard College, and benefactors like Max Kenner, so that opportunities for an education can again be made available if only one mind, one class, one institution and one state at a time.
Many trends tilt towards the negative, but this one program from a college of less than 3,000 students could represent an exemplary practice that has been accomplished through deep concern rather than deep pockets. Fortunate students return every autumn to the educational opportunity that often defines their future. A trend that transferred the BPI program to dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other colleges and prisons just might help us achieve a 15 percent recidivism rate for more prisoners who otherwise appear doomed to be “60 percenters.” Max Kenner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C.