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The Amazing Results When You Give a Prison Inmate a Liberal Arts Education

Prison reform activist Max Kenner champions the transformative power of a college degree for inmates nationwide

(Photo-illustration by William Duke; Photography by Ethan Hill / Redux)
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Separated by eight years, a dozen subway stops and a vast socioeconomic distance, Erica Mateo and Max Kenner had one thing in common growing up: They were no one’s candidates for most likely to succeed. Mateo was raised by her grandmother in one of Brooklyn’s roughest neighborhoods, dropped out of school in the eighth grade and ended up in a juvenile correctional facility. Kenner’s handicap was to grow up among artists and left-wing intellectuals in 1980s SoHo, an environment that did not exactly promote a rigorous academic work ethic. At the famously progressive Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights, which is known for quirky gifted graduates like Lena Dunham and doesn’t even hand out grades, “I basically checked out by senior year,” he says cheerfully.

They met in prison, at the Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan, where in 2006, Mateo, an insouciant and streetwise 19-year-old, was serving a three- to nine-year sentence for assault. Kenner was there speaking to inmates about the Bard Prison Initiative—a program he had conceived and created while still an undergraduate at Bard, the forward-thinking college in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. The program’s unlikely purpose was to provide a Bard education, and degree, to inmates at some of New York State’s toughest prisons.

Since its origins, BPI has expanded to six New York prisons, where it now serves some 300 students. Kenner isn’t empire-building; he encourages other colleges to establish their own programs. His vision has led to a sister organization, the Consortium for Liberal Arts in Prison, now exporting the concept to other states—nine as of 2014, where around 800 students work toward degrees from such elite institutions as Wesleyan, Grinnell and Goucher. This year his mission—to offer liberal arts education to inmates nationwide—took a major leap forward when Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education, begun with seed money from the Bard program, received its own Ford Foundation grant.

But more important, Kenner, who is 36, says, this was the year that his tireless advocacy for prison education began to pay off in nationwide political visibility, as the concept won the endorsement of Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Attorney General Kamala Harris of California.

His program to offer a college degree to prison inmates gives them a second chance

The meeting with Mateo did not go well at first.

“Why are you talking about liberal arts?” demanded Mateo. “How is that going to help me get a job when I get out?”

Kenner patiently explained that the humanities encouraged critical thinking and self-discipline and would prove their value in the long run. Mateo applied and was accepted. In one of her first classes she encountered a line in a poem about the “yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes”—and was jolted into awareness of the awesome power of a metaphor. Who knew that language could do that?

***

The idea came to Kenner in 1999, but he can’t recall just when or how. He knew no one who was incarcerated. He just knew that a few years earlier Congress had decreed that prisoners were no longer eligible for Pell tuition grants, putting a stop to most prison education programs. Having recently discovered for himself the thrill of serious intellectual enterprise, he decided to attempt to bring the same experience to some of the 71,000 inmates in New York State’s sprawling penal system.

He took the idea to Leon Botstein, Bard’s charismatic president, who was enthusiastic. Kenner spent the next two years cadging meetings with prison officials—he would introduce himself on the phone as “Max Kenner from Bard College,” without mentioning that his position there was as a sophomore—cajoling Bard faculty to sign on and scaring up funding from philanthropists. (The program, now budgeted at around $2.5 million annually, has received support from the Ford and Soros foundations.) Even today, Kenner—of medium build, with dark hair starting to recede—carries himself with a mixture of passion and diffidence; he believes so strongly in his vision that he gives the impression of not caring whether he convinces you or not, but he has had remarkable success in getting people to see things his way.

Kenner (at Coxsackie prison) says that BPI is founded on a basic tenet: “Treat the people we expect the least of in the way we all want to be treated.” (Ethan Hill / Redux )
At her 2009 graduation at Bayview prison, Afi Turner recalls, she spoke about “having the tenacity to keep going.” She now works as an employment counselor. (Karl Rabe / Bard Prison Initiative)
In prison, Smallwood worked with Bard historian Stephen Mucher, left. “I remember thinking, I’ll never get in,” Smallwood recalls of the application process. (Bard Prison Initiative)
Today BPI grads Dorell Smallwood, left, and Joe Williams counsel young offenders. “BPI,” says Williams, “was about strategically planning for my release.” (Ty Cole)

“Prison wardens knew that ending college programs was terrible policy, but Congress did it,” he recalls. “The atmosphere had been poisoned. I was this naive 20-year-old trying to do something that everyone knew was right, but they couldn’t do it themselves because they all hated each other.” He recruited Daniel Karpowitz, a law school graduate, sometime playwright and legal scholar to help develop a curriculum. In 2001, they matriculated their first class, 18 inmates at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in nearby Ulster County.

One of the students was Anibal Cortés, who wrote a senior thesis on “Community-Based Responses to Infant Mortality,” then took post-graduate math courses to be admitted, after his release, to Columbia for a master’s degree in public health. True, he had an edge, having graduated years before from the elite Bronx High School of Science, which has also produced at least eight Nobel Prize winners and one famous detainee: the late civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael.

Admission to the Bard prison program is very competitive, involving a written essay followed by an intensive interview. Kenner and Karpowitz look for imagination, passion and intellectual curiosity, which is what Kenner saw in Mateo. He praised her submission as “idiosyncratic.”
“I thought he was calling me an idiot,” she remembers.

An applicant’s criminal record and release date are not considered; often, Kenner doesn’t even know, or want to know. About 300 prisoners have received Bard degrees since 2001, and most of them are still behind bars. Among graduates who have been released, only a tiny fraction, less than 2 percent, have been rearrested, according to Kenner’s (unaudited) figures. By comparison, a 2010 study by the Justice Department, covering 30 states, found that more than 70 percent of state prison inmates were re­incarcerated within five years of release. A Rand Corporation report has found that, in general, inmates who participate in an education program are 43 percent less likely than other inmates to return to prison within three years of release. Of course, the inmates who enroll in an education program and stick with it are self-selected for high motivation, so even that success rate comes with a statistical asterisk.

Kenner will cite these figures when necessary, but privately he thinks they’re beside the point. The Bard program, he says, is less about prison reform than education—not a slacker, diploma-mill curriculum but a classical education in literature, history, philosophy, math and science.

This runs counter to the current fashion for evaluating college education in terms of future earning potential, but Kenner doesn’t care. There may be countless expensively educated liberal arts graduates unemployed and living in their parents’ basements, but Kenner holds to his conviction that exposing criminals to the Federalist Papers is a stronger defense against future malfeasance than teaching them welding. “People are always saying, why not do vocational education, or spiritual inspiration, or anti-violence programs,” he says. “Everyone has a bad idea about what people they know nothing about need. If you believe that society is not training people for jobs in the 21st century, that we are producing a mathematically, scientifically and philosophically illiterate population, then you would want to make this kind of education available to as many people as possible.” In that sense, prisoners—with time on their hands and motivation for self-improvement—are “the low-hanging fruit” of educational reform.

Unsurprisingly, that is not a universally held belief; the political forces that led Congress to end Pell grants in prison are still at work. Governor Cuomo earlier this year proposed spending $1 million (a tiny portion of the $2.8 billion Department of Corrections budget) on college classes in prisons. But he was forced to back down under a torrent of ridicule from opponents, including his Republican challenger Rob Astorino, who said he was saving to send his own son to college and “maybe we should sit him down and explain how to rob a bank.”

The other trend that Kenner has bucked is the kind of condescending multiculturalism that assumes minority students can study only the poetry of 50 Cent and the political philosophy of Eldridge Cleaver. Each graduate must produce a senior thesis of original research—no small task for students who do not have easy access to a library, cannot call people they wish to interview, or even use the Internet or email. In general, inmates can use computers connected to an in-house network, access research on that network and submit written requests for materials from the Bard College library. A selection of thesis titles, provided by Kenner, includes some expected forays in urban sociology (“Half a Century After Brown v. Board of Education: A Historical Look at Effective African-American Education”) but many others along the lines of “Photographic Imagery in the Work of Thomas Hardy.”

The poet who so electrified Mateo was, of course, T.S. Eliot. Later, in an anthropology class, she was assigned a book of ethnography, Never in Anger. “It changed my whole trajectory in life,” she recalls. “I read it and said, This is what I’ve always been looking for, This is what I want to learn and understand—and it was about Eskimos.”

Anthropology also captivated Dorell Smallwood, who joined BPI at Eastern in 2004, halfway through what would be a 20-year stint behind bars for homicide. Reading deeply in John Dewey, he developed an interest in the philosophy of education. His senior thesis was a research paper on the motivations of inmates enrolled either in the Bard initiative or more conventional prison programs on substance abuse or anger management. The latter group, he found, was largely interested in accumulating credit within the system that might entitle them to benefits such as conjugal visits. The Bard students wanted to go to college for its own sake, or to make their parents, or children, proud. You might imagine that a BPI degree would be a ticket to early parole, but Jed Tucker, the program’s director of re-entry, says it’s not certain it helps. Prisons value conformity, and a certain ingrained suspicion attaches to an inmate who conspicuously out-achieves his peers.

After earning his degree, Smallwood had to wait another three years for his freedom, on May 8, 2013—inmates seem always to give the exact date of their release. With Tucker’s help he got a job as a youth advocate at Brooklyn Defender Services, counseling teenage defendants as they make their baffling progress through the justice system. There, he joined another former inmate he had known in the BPI program. Joseph Williams (senior thesis: “Cultural Critiques and Social Mobility: The Double Performance of the ‘Black’ Rapper Performing as the ‘White’ Gangster”) is now working toward a master’s degree in social work at Columbia. (“I told Jed, I’m applying to Columbia. I’m going to Columbia. And that’s what I did.”) From an office in the public defender’s office, Smallwood, in a dark suit and colorful tie, looks down on the Brooklyn Tabernacle church. But 21 years ago the building was the Loew’s Metropolitan movie theater, where he was shot five times in what he describes as his last night of freedom. Recovering in the hospital, he was arrested and later convicted of an unrelated homicide. “That was my last night on the street, until I got out,” he says thoughtfully. “And I never would have imagined that I’d be here someday looking down on it.”

***

Mateo, who is now 28, was dressed the day I interviewed her in a tan skirt and sweater, with short nails, loose brown hair and no lipstick—an executive look, belied only by gold hoop earrings that could encircle a grapefruit. But she looks like an executive because she is one: director of community initiatives for the Brownsville Community Justice Center, where she oversees a six-figure budget and a staff of counselors and social workers who combat violence in the very neighborhood where she grew up. She says she is still sometimes amazed at how far she has come from the streets. She credits her prison education and Kenner, who all but forced her to apply for admission to the main Bard campus when she was released from prison before earning her degree.

“Prison was hard,” she says, “but actually going to college was a whole other thing. I was still on parole, and my parole officer would come check up on me in the dorm.” BPI is still a touchstone in her life; she had spent the previous weekend visiting Kenner and Karpowitz at the campus, talking about her work, her life. She still marvels at how quietly influential Kenner has been. “He pushes you to ask questions,” Mateo says. “It frustrated me at the time. I was 19, I was looking for answers.”

But Kenner thinks the questions are what matters. “College is unique in prison,” he muses, “because what you put into it makes a difference in what you take away” into the outside world, and the future. And everyone, he thinks, deserves a future.

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