Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The making of a prison education initiative

         Within the past two years I have had great opportunities to meet some extraordinary, engaging and amazing human beings. I began researching before I even realized I was researching. Immersing myself into the challenging issues of reentry to society has been inspiring, powerful, and at times frustrating and sad. The combination of getting the opportunity to interact and listen to the many stories, failures, triumphs, thought- provoking dialogue and observing the head on challenging obstacles and policies that blockade so many people from truly cohesive societal integration has blossomed into a passion and quest for justice and equality for me. It has catapulted my involvement to build a prison education initiative and successful avenues for career attainment upon release.
            One of the most influential aspects that I became familiar with in the process of reentry is the notion that time served for many of these people does not necessary mean just that. The sentence that people serve behind prison walls does not constitute that once their time is up, punishment for their crimes have been rendered and they then can be integrated as “ law-abiding outstanding citizen”.
It is actually far from that.
For most individuals, reentry back into society is another sentence of its own. Upon release and reentry to society many people are faced with coping with communities and institutions that still view them as a criminal and if the offender is African American or Latino the apprehensions of trusting these people are even more intense because as a long standing tradition in American society, just being black or brown is a criminal offense in itself.
Reentry for many individuals is a stark and terrifying reality. Although being released from behind bars allows for physical freedom to the outside world, the proverbial shackles and chains are cast upon people attaining reentry into a world that many seek to break the confines from.   
The challenge of attaining education is a goal that many of these people find to be unachievable once released.  In 1994, former President Bill Clinton signed into effect the bill that enables offenders to receive any federal assistance, in the form of Pell grants to aid with college tuition. Paired with the reality that once someone has a felony on their record any trustworthiness for a bank or private institution to give an individual a loan, the chances of being able to afford to further ones’ human capital through college to not only compete in an capitalistic American marketplace but to gain a sense of intrinsic accomplishment and worth has become a harsh slap in the face.
To combat the obstacles of not being able to attain higher education faced by persons with criminal records there are a select few programs that have been established to allow people to gain their liberal arts degree behind prison walls so they  have the opportunity to  market themselves in a highly competitive society. For many years, GED and vocational programs have been established to allow for offenders to attain their GED or high school diploma and develop skills to a particular trade such as mechanics, welding, or construction, but as it has been ever so apparent within our culture a GED does not go very far to help establish a solid career and the job market may have availability for tradesmen but they are a dying breed.
One such program that has gained national acclaim and that has been featured in a two part series on PBS is The Bard Prison Initiative. 
The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) creates the opportunity for incarcerated men and women to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentences. The academic standards and workload are rigorous, based on an unusual mix of attention to developmental skills and ambitious college study. The rate of post-release employment among the program’s participants is high and recidivism is stunningly low. By challenging incarcerated men and women with a liberal education, BPI works to redefine the relationship between educational opportunity and criminal justice.
As the largest program of its kind in the United States, BPI enrolls 25 incarcerated men and women across a full spectrum of academic disciplines, and offers over 50 courses each semester. By 2011, Bard granted 157 degrees to BPI participants and enrolled a total of nearly 500 students (, 2011).  This type of liberal arts education offered to these people opens up a world of opportunity that many have not educationally experienced.
A theme of collective community is central to not only perceived and actual successful reintegration, but to the basic fundamental and foundational elements of the program’s inception.
            BPI began in 1999, when then-student Max Kenner set out to engage Bard College in the effort to restore meaningful education to the prison system. At the start, Kenner organized other Bard students to volunteer as tutors in local prisons. In 2001, BPI outgrew its role as a student organization and became an academic program of the College. In 2005, BPI awarded the first Bard College degrees to incarcerated candidates. It now operates a network of 5 satellite campuses across New York, engaging students up through their release and after (, 2011).
 Max Kenner states that “the grassroots founding of the program’s initiation was critical to truly implementing a holistic approach to reentry; the importance of the community and the offenders to work and contribute to one another’s insights, experience, and human capital produced a strong and tight-knit solidarity” (Interview, 2011).
            The Initiative is one of a number of projects at Bard College that seek to strengthen the importance of the liberal arts in public life. The process of democratic participation, community involvement, individual empowerment, and quest towards educational liberation is substantial within programs like the Bard Prison Initiative that what to consequently equip these offenders with necessary skills and critical thinking processes to dedicate and maintain efforts of individual and collective capacities to contribute to such inevitable and important facets  of public life.
The commitment of this mission runs through the dedication of prosperous reentry but also included and not limited to other initiatives that uphold priceless social capital. These include early college high schools in the New York City public school system, a collegiate academy for young people in New Orleans, an honors college at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, and liberal arts colleges in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (, 2011).
            Graduates of the BPI program have consistently succeeded after release from prison. Some have chosen to work in human service organizations, serving people with AIDS, or becoming professional counselors for residents in city-based alternatives to incarceration. Several alumni have worked their way up to management positions in an innovative, for-profit electronics recycling company. Other graduates have continued their educations, earning scholarships and working toward additional academic and professional degrees (, 2011).
The research that I have conducted into the Bard Prison Initiative as well as the lack of such liberal arts programs throughout the United States including North Carolina, and the realization of the many insurmountable strife, challenges and continually infringement of civil rights upon people navigating their way towards successful and inclusive reentry has tapped into the “wellspring of my being” (Minnich, 143).
The information, stories, injustices, triumphs and individuals that have composed much of my involvement in this research and journey have animated and enabled the reasons and needs that press me to a fight for a higher level of justice within our society to engage communities and offenders to openly and truthfully without reservations recognize and embrace one another’s potential and strengths to concretely manifest cohesive communities.
Reentry is more than a society allowing previously incarcerated persons back into communities, because as our social reality of criminals and crime are pervasively groomed by influences of media and affluent framers of our American culture, persuasive biases, prejudices and apprehensions will cloud abilities to trust one another.
The greatest works of reentry and society is to learn the teachings and honor one another in our various fields of experiences and knowledge. This learning process and experience of communities and offender desiring acceptance and reentry is substantiated by a belief that “subject matter and methods are most effectively learned, and remembered when they are studied by people who find our for themselves why they matter, and do so by following their own interest rather than as we prescribe the order in which they must be learned” (Minnich, pg150).
Reentry involves digging deep and really seeing one another, learning one another and what constitutes the capabilities to effectively contribute and uplift each other in our society and not adhere to ideologies that create divisive yet permeable paranoia and distrust.
Furthermore, reentry then is a continual “responsibility for individuals to be responsible for individuals” (Saul Alinsky, IAF) and to hold accountable most of all the “integral transformative” (Minnich, pg. 154) teaching and learning that aspires to do more than produce culturally standard citizens but to go against the grain of culturally standardized ideology and to develop communities of intense and powerful social capital that value one another.
Recognizing the human being in front of us, acknowledging that we need to cultivate a bit of humility and the ability to hear the souls of others requires silencing the clamor of our own obsessions and our own assumptions about how the world should be. The stigmatic labels of criminal, offender, ex-con, convict induces oppressive boundaries around our morality of fairness and equality. These labels ignite fear without analysis of understanding the individual and circumstance. It is only when we look past the label, more times than not applied to oppress and perpetuate fearful fallacies, can we truly listen to others and acquire the chance to discover and celebrate what we actually hold in common.
Dare to see…

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