A student in Bard College’s Prison Initiative (BPI) was giving a graduation speech at the initiative’s first commencement ceremony, held in the New York State correctional facility where he was serving time roughly ten years ago.
In a story told by Daniel Karpowitz, director of policy and academics at BPI, from his book, College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration, “Joseph,” mimicked and mocked the high-flown academy-speak his professors had used, and spoke about the early 19th-century practice of inverted fetes. These were celebrations where slaves were allowed to dress as masters and the positions of power were temporarily flipped for a brief period, something Joseph had learned about in one of his Bard classes.
The professor told Joseph’s BPI class that when she explained the concept of the inverted fetes to her students on the Bard campus, they had trouble with the concept – they didn’t understand what the point was, or what it had to say about the nature of slavery, Karpowitz said.
“We here at [the prison] took to the idea of these fetes at once,” Joseph later said, according to Karpowitz. “We found it insightful and fascinating…it seemed to come naturally to us, for whatever reason.”
The slaves eventually had to turn the power back over to the masters, but the graduating BPI students, now in possession of an education, “were not simply inverting power, but assuming it.”
Karpowitz relayed that story to students, faculty, and staff during an Institute of Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies-sponsored lecture he gave on college prison initiatives on Tuesday, November 8, in the Walker Building.
Joseph, who did his Bard undergraduate thesis on the correlation between infant mortality rates and admissions to neonatal intensive care units in the South Bronx, eventually was released from prison and is now an epidemiologist in that same borough. Among BPI graduates over the past 15 years, less than 2 percent have returned to prison, while three-year recidivism rates among inmates who don’t receive any educational opportunities are nearly 68 percent, according to BPI.
College in prison initiatives aren’t new; in fact, they were partially funded by federal Pell Grants from the time the grants came into being in the mid-1960s until 1994, when the Clinton Crime Bill did away with the education subsidies, ostensibly to save money, Karpowitz said. At the height of the program, for every Pell Grant dollar spent, one half of one cent was spent on college for prisoners, for a total of $30 million, he said.
Bob Nesson, a faculty member in the Visual and Media Arts Department, asked if a financial argument could be made for college in prison funding, since tax dollars and economic spending generated by former inmates who stay out of prison would far exceed the cost of the program.
It’s true, Karpowitz said, but it’s not a useful argument because opposition to these initiatives is never, at its core, about money.
It’s also a problematic argument, from Karpowitz’s standpoint, because it assigns a different set of motivations and visions for students in prison than for students in traditional college settings.
College in prison recidivism rates are low, not in spite of it not being a goal, but because it’s not a goal, Karpowitz said.
“There is not a program or initiative or discipline that is made worthy or justified by a reduction in recidivism,” he said.
Lowering recidivism and “rehabilitating” inmates may not be the endgame for BPI or the other members of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, but that’s most likely the goal for the state departments of correction that let the programs in.
“How do you help people in prison to help themselves and fight against the system, and also be in a system that wants you to decrease recidivism?” a student asked.
Karpowitz said he runs into that issue all the time. When he told a prison official in Indiana that students must be able to choose their own programs and even follow programs to other prisons if that’s where their studies take them, the official looked “horrified.”
“He said, ‘The offenders need to know we’re driving the bus,’” Karpowitz said. “That’s not college, that’s the antithesis of college … It’s a constant power struggle…to come out on the side of college.”
Jaime Fong ’17 and Paolina Guy ’18 are students in Mneesha Gellman’s Human Rights course, which was attending the lecture as a class.
Fong, who interned at Citizens for Juvenile Justice and would be interested in getting involved in a college in prison initiative, said she was surprised that BPI wasn’t interested in keeping people from re-entering prison as a goal.
But she said she was hopeful that whatever the motivation, programs like BPI can reform criminal justice over time.
“I’m a huge advocate for education,” Fong said. “I think education is really important. It’s something that no one can take away from you.”
Guy agreed. “I think education is very important, no matter what you’ve done or where you are,” she said.