Written 3/16/2020, published today
A program that transforms the negative impacts of criminal punishment, the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), provides incarcerated individuals higher education opportunities that culminate into degrees from Bard College. As Max Kenner, the executive director of BPI, describes it, the crisis of mass incarceration is the central part of the story of our generation. Hence, building an educational program to distribute education with equity is the most radical way to address this issue.
Kenner started the BPI program approximately 20 years ago with several other undergraduate students at Bard College in New York. The admissions process for the program is competitive and applicants are required to have a high school diploma and write an essay. One of the key advantages is that they do not review the students’ institutional or educational records.
“Overwhelmingly, our students are first generation college students,” Kenner said. “Most were arrested as young people and most did not have a high school diploma when they went to prison,” he added.
Kenner mentioned that the success of the program is evident. Students who graduate from BPI and complete their sentences in prison have gone on to graduate programs in ivy league institutions such as Yale and Columbia University. They have also furthered their careers to represent former incarcerated individuals and are working to develop similar programs throughout the country. Additionally, many of them are working at the advocacy level with local and state governments.
While the BPI program began in New York, Kenner’s team has done collaborative work to assist with similar programs in other states. The overall goal is to increase the number of programs that provide educational opportunities to incarcerated individuals.
Sebastian Yoon graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Studies in January 2017 and was released from prison in March 2019. During the two years, in between, he continued courses at BPI to stay engaged. He is now working as a Program Specialist in the Democracy Team at the Open Society Foundations. Yoon was incarcerated when he was 16 years old and rotated through different maximum-security prisons.
“All I was doing was sleeping, mopping floors, and going to the gym. At the same time, my peers were outside the prison system going to college,” he said. That’s when he decided to join BPI.
While there were many challenges during the BPI program Yoon stated, the benefits are vast for those with a higher education. According to Yoon, the education at BPI is unique because there is an emphasis on human dialogue to supplement critical thinking. He stated, “We learn about others and their opinion and how to respect those differences in opinions.” According to Yoon, one of his favorite classes was Cosmopolitanism, a class which challenges students to think outside the box when defining citizenship and the rights and responsibilities of a citizen. “Professor Dixon who taught the class encouraged us to identify commonalities between us rather than differences so we can make the world a better place for everyone,” said Yoon.
“At BPI, you’re a student for life,” said Giovannie Hernandez who graduated in 2013 with an Associates degree in liberal arts and now pursuing a bachelor’s degree. He is now employed at The Code Cooperative as their Development Manager and has been working there for several months. “A good friend of mine encouraged me to join BPI and I am so glad he did,” Hernandez said. He hopes that state and federal laws will be amended in the future to allow for greater access to higher education for people in prison.
Currently, Congress has banned individuals in state or federal prisons from receiving a Pell Grant.
“It will encourage a lot of young prisoners if such regulations change as financial aid is vital to obtaining a reasonable college education,” Hernandez added.
According to a 2018 publication by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68% of released prisoners are arrested within 3 years, 79% are arrested within 6 years, and 83% are arrested within 9 years. In contrast, 97.5% of the BPI graduates who leave prison never go back. After returning home, BPI graduates become taxpaying and contributing citizens of the society.
Additionally, they are involved in their local communities by serving as role models to young people.