How I Earned My Bachelor’s Degree in Prison, From a Top Ranking College

Getting a high-quality liberal arts education from Bard College changed my life

Photo courtesy of the author

I’ll never forget the moment when I knew that the 13 years I was spending in prison would not go to waste.

I was in for sure.

Max Kenner was a student at Bard College, a private liberal arts college in New York when he began the work that would lead to the founding of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) in 1999. BPI now operates in prisons throughout the state, offering associate and bachelor’s degrees to their populations.

Every year, hundreds of inmates in the facilities where BPI functions apply for admission. Part of the process includes writing a two-page essay. It’s not used to judge how the applicant writes, but how that person thinks. An applicant has to showcase critical thinking and open-mindedness in their essay. After the essay portion, the BPI staff conducts interviews with 30 candidates; of those, 15 are selected for acceptance into BPI.

The day I received my acceptance letter from Bard, I called my mom from the yard of Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York. She congratulated me and then asked, “When are they going to bring you to the college?” I laughed; I remembered that many people could not wrap their minds around civilized men in maximum-security facilities learning in a classroom in prison. I said, “Mummy, they are not going to free us just so we can go to college.” I explained that the prison has a school building and that corrections officers escort professors to the facility.

Every maximum- and medium-security prison in New York state has a school building, primarily for inmates to earn GEDs. These schools are staffed with teachers, counselors, and a principal, whose official title is education supervisor. BPI has also provided computer rooms and a library in every facility where it functions, as well as a ton of other resources the program makes available to students.

There was a time when states across the nation made college degrees available to inmate populations. However, in 1994, a bill passed that made prisoners ineligible for Pell grants. Lawmakers in New York then removed the state-level tuition programs that were offered to its prison population. That was essentially the end of college in prisons; the whole thing came down to funding, and it seemed that no one was interested in funding a prisoner’s education.

Max Kenner and Bard president Leon Botstein were able to fund BPI privately. How? I don’t know enough to say here. But until recently, BPI was entirely privately funded. About five years ago, the Obama administration allowed many prisoners to apply for federal college grants. BPI and its graduates’ success had an impact on the administration’s decision to offer those grants. However, the grants are a very, very small portion of the funds needed for BPI to continue to function.

Jealous corrections officers and prison administration

People often believe that corrections officers have a dangerous job. That is far from the truth. I have done time in two of the most dangerous prisons in New York state, and I learned that those places are hazardous largely because corrections officers constantly antagonize inmates.

A corrections officer’s job is mostly boring. So to liven things up a bit, some physically and mentally abuse inmates in the facility. The inmates who attend college programs are hot targets. Officers know that inmates in a college program feel they have something to lose — a chance at earning a degree from a respected private college — and would put up with more abuse than the average inmate.

Prisons have huge budgets because of the belief that all prisons are dangerous places. But inmates attending college courses are usually too busy studying to cause any trouble.

I was targeted for years at Eastern Correctional. Corrections officers would sneak into my cell while I attended class and destroy my personal belongings. A couple of officers colluded with medical staff members to deny me medication. Those officers found out that I have an autoimmune disease for which I take medication daily. There were times when I would go for days without receiving any medication until a non-colluding member of the medical staff was willing to administer them to me.

Some of the administration officials were no better. To them, inmates in college were a threat to their livelihoods. Prisons have such huge budgets because of the belief that all prisons are dangerous places. But inmates attending college courses are usually too busy studying to cause any trouble. As a result, fewer incident and misbehavior reports get filed; that alone makes it harder for administrations to claim they need more funding to keep inmates under control.

BPI saved my life

Bard offered me a complete, high-quality liberal arts education, and I took full advantage. I learned about all of the concepts and people I have been curious about my whole life. I studied Socrates and Aristotle and learned that the Egyptians invented calculus.

I was also a part of the famous BPI debate team, performing the debate-winning argument against the venerable and prestigious West Point Military Academy, our first win ever. But our win against Ivy League giant Harvard put us on the map — and gave us five minutes of fame.

I am now a remote full-stack developer, and I write a blog. Both my coding and writing skills came thanks to earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics — while serving time in prison.

I love to ponder and write about the human experience…oh and tech.

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