Spotlight on Reform: The Bard Prison Initiative

August 02, 2016 by

A privately-funded program in New York State is helping reduce recidivism by providing prisoners with college-level education as part of their reform into citizens.

The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program from Bard College, has provided the program since the federal government stopped supporting college in-prison efforts. Individual support and philanthropic foundations have helped BPI serve inmates since 1999.

BPI is the largest program of its kind in the country and has awarded 375 associates and bachelors degrees to participants, and has enrolled over 700 students. Unlike many in-prison initiatives, the program takes a unique approach by not focusing on vocational training. They provide a college liberal arts program to encourage flexible and critical thinking for real world opportunities.

Open to both male and female inmates, their rigorous course material instills developmental skills that many haven’t had prior. The program offers more than 60 courses per semester across six medium and maximum-security prisons in New York State. The courses offered include literature, foreign language, philosophy, history, social sciences, mathematics, science, and the arts.

BPI says,

“by challenging incarcerated men and women with a liberal education, BPI works to redefine the relationship between educational opportunity and criminal justice.”

The BPI Prison debate team, using old-fashioned research techniques without Internet access, has gained notoriety for beating Harvard University’s debate team just months after the Ivy League school won a national title. They also recently bested West Point’s debate team.

“The training BPI provides is similar to how West Point offers a broad base of education that meets Samuel Huntington’s belief that an officer must have a ‘deeper understanding of human attitudes, motivations, and behavior which a liberal education stimulates,’” said MAJ Adam Scher, West Point’s debate coach.

The program doesn’t end when inmates are released; they continue to engage post-release to help with a productive reintegration.

While the program is selective and only open to those who have a high school diploma, or equivalent, it has proven to be remarkably successful. BPI boasts an impressive less than 2% recidivism rate for those for have completed the program.

The privately-funded BPI benefits the public at large. As states continue to reform sentencing laws for non-violent offenders these programs become crucial in bridging the gap between ex-offender and productive community member.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.