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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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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.”

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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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