I have just read a review, Scholars Behind Bars, in the current New York Review of Books . It is mainly about a program set up by Bard College 18 years ago which provides a college education to inmates in several high-security penitentiaries in New York.
I remember my time on the faculty at Bard as among the best years of my life. I had no idea, though, that President Leon Botstein had applied the principles that guided the college during my years there to prisons. The statistics suggest that the value of this program are almost unbelievable.
Apparently, the enthusiasm of the inmates to earn admittance to the program is very great. They will not be accepted until they pass a written test and oral interview demonstrating that they have the reading and writing skills they need. Unlike some colleges, the program does not provide remedial courses for freshmen. The perspective applicants have to do that for themselves. It’s a rigorous program, and not for softies.
Nor does the enthusiasm diminish once students are taking courses. They ask for feedback on essays they have written that may not even have been for a class assignment. The discussions both with faculty and other students show that students are reading books beyond those assigned for a course, and may simply be in order to follow-up on philosophical questions they find intriguing. Like “how do we know what is or isn’t fair?” They are not put off by controversy or disagreement or even insults.
Most astonishing for me is the recidivism rate of graduates from Bard’s program compared to the average number of released prisoners who re-offend. Nationally, the re-offend rate is 50%. It is 2% for graduates from the Bard program. It’s also notable that almost all of the Bard students have been convicted of violence crimes. Many very serious violent crimes. Not dealing dope or other so-called victimless crimes. That’s why they are in a high-security prison. Yet on their release, most of these students go into teaching, social work, youth work, counselling – the kind of jobs where quite possibly they uniquely may be most effective.
This doesn’t happen to me very often, but as I read the review I was flooded with a feeling of recognition and sheer gratitude that the kind of education I had known characterized Bard was still going on in the most surprising places. I wish I weren’t too old to join the faculty there.