‘Undoing a mistake’: Inside the push to bring college education back to prison – Bard Prison Initiative

(BPI) November 29, 2019

Stacks of books are organized meticulously by genre amid the chaos of a maximum security prison. A makeshift desk made from cardboard is placed over a sink in a cramped cell. A chalkboard is filled with Chinese symbols in a room filled with eager students in green jumpsuits. Late night studying.

This isn’t the picture most Americans have of prison.

More often than not, violence, isolation and anger is what comes to mind. But these scenes from a PBS documentary airing later this month show viewers a different kind of prison life – the rigorous pursuit of pursuing higher education.

“College Behind Bars” follows students in the Bard Prison Initiative, a privately funded college program that began in 2001 in New York state prisons. For now, the roughly 300 students taking classes free of charge at the elite college are the exception. Most incarcerated individuals cannot afford a college education – and all are banned from applying for federal grants.

It wasn’t always this way. For decades, college prison programs flourished across the country. But after the passage of the 1994 Crime Bill, Pell Grants were banned for those who are incarcerated.

For the first time in over two decades, a push to lift this ban is sparking bipartisan support. Last month, Congress introduced bills to reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for those incarcerated as part of wider college affordability legislation.

For formerly incarcerated individuals, educational experts and prison reform advocates, it’s about time. They argue that postsecondary education behind bars will lower the likelihood that an individual returns to prison and benefit society as whole.

“Ninety-five percent of people who are in prison will get out,” Ken Burns, the executive producer of the PBS film, told USA TODAY. “Do you want them as responsible, tax-paying citizens, or people who have used their time in prison to hone their criminal skills?”