Bard College doesn’t judge the success of its prison initiative by the number of students who stay out of jail. Recidivism is an extremely low bar, says Executive Director Max Kenner. “We judge by how many people are becoming middle-class taxpayers, how many people are involved in deeply meaningful ways in their communities. We think by those measures we are thriving.”
In New York’s Hudson Valley, Bard is expanding its work in prisons as similar programs see a resurgence across the country. There are 275 men and women working toward degrees in Bard’s tuition-free programs in six prisons. “The degrees are precisely the same as what’s offered on campus,” Kenner says.
Operating costs are about $3,000 to $5,000 per student per year. Many graduates have gone on to work with at-risk youth, people with AIDS and the homeless, he says.
In Iowa, Grinnell College’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program is part of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison. Up to 15 men at a medium-security facility can take two to three courses a semester until they are released or they’ve earned enough credits to complete the equivalent of their first year at Grinnell.
They can then apply to Grinnell or another institution, says Program Coordinator Emily Guenther.
“There are high-quality students everywhere, in different situations—some of them happen to be in prison,” Guenther says.
Robert Scott, director of Cornell University’s Prison Education Program, says faculty members have been leading the nationwide revival in prison programs.
“College in prison is a function of privately recruited dollars, volunteerism and political will on the part of some campuses to be involved in this as part of service learning, community outreach and some other narrative of social engagement,” he says.