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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?

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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.

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