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Give Prisoners the Gift of a Whitman Education

Zach Duffy

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I recently heard about an incredible program at Bard College. It’s called the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), and since 2001, it has offered credit-bearing courses toward undergraduate degrees for inmates at five of New York’s maximum security prisons. Bard’s professors teach the courses; Bard students assist with the courses and offer educational workshops in their fields of study. Nearly 200 inmates are enrolled in the programs each year. And its success has convinced me that Whitman should explore a similar partnership with the Washington State Penitentiary.

Since Bard and Whitman are remarkably similar to each other in size and academic rigor, BPI serves as a case study for how a college-in-prison program might benefit students and inmates alike.

Max Kenner, the founder of BPI, articulately explained why Bard decided to give a green light to the program during an interview on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show.

“We knew that nothing went farther to reduce prison recidivism [than education], that the college programs were extraordinarily cheap, that no form of correctional spending went so far or was as effective in doing all the things that we hope an institution like a prison might do.”

And as Mark Primoff, a spokesman for Bard College, also explained in a 2008 interview, such education programs have diverse benefits.

“[We’ve found that ] the program not only serves an essential societal need, it also enriches the lives of students and faculty at Bard, many of whom volunteer to work with the Bard Prison Initiative.”

In other words, Bard realized that as a liberal arts college, it could offer inmates at nearby prisons an education that would greatly reduce their chances of re-entering the justice system at a cost far lower than that of continued incarceration; and furthermore, that the Prison Initiative would substantively contribute to the education and working lives of students and professors at the college.

Educational programs in prisons actually used to be commonplace. Starting in the 70s, prisoners organized themselves and pushed for educational opportunities within correctional facilities. They were successful. There were 350 college-in-prison programs around the country by 1995, according to BPI’s website.

Then, as politicians began to present themselves as “tough on crime,” the axe fell on most of the programs. Critics wondered why inmates were receiving educational opportunities when so many non-incarcerated Americans already lacked adequate access to college. Congress eliminated Pell Grant eligibility for inmates through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Within a few years of the act’s passage, only three college-in-prison programs remained.

Here in Walla Walla, the Washington State Penitentiary has operated a grant-funded associates degree program in partnership with Walla Walla Community College since 2002.   It is well-run and several Whitman professors, including Scott Elliott and Kari Tupper, have taught courses in the program. But according to Gary Rosso, academic coordinator of the WWCC initiative, Whitman has no formal ties to the program and has yet to explore the possibility of a partnership with the Washington State Penitentiary and WWCC that would grant bachelor’s degrees to inmates.

Whitman ought to do more. Starting a full-fledged college-in-prison initiative expanding on the WWCC program will of course require that Whitman finds a source of funding for its efforts, but I’d guess that there are Whitman alumni who would gladly donate to the cause. After all, a Whitman Prison Initiative would appeal to the mission of this institution: it would be a program rooted in an appreciation of the values of education and of service. It would also be a program that would bring Whitman positive recognition, raising its national profile and improving town relations here in Walla Walla.

At the very least, Rosso suggested that Whitman students might start a program to supplement WWCC’s efforts. Once inmates graduate with their associates degrees and are eventually released from custody, said Rosso, they need assistance with applying for FAFSA, filling out college apps and finding information about academic programs and institutions in which they might be interested. A college advising program for the Washington State Penitentiary run by Whitman students–I like that idea.

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1 Comment

One Response to “Give Prisoners the Gift of a Whitman Education”

  1. Laurie Parks on April 3rd, 2013 11:19 pm

    I think they need more advising than just academic programs with advice from a fellow student. Without the aid of being a prisoner. I found I needed quite a bit of help figuring out fafsa and what it means not only in the beginning but in the end. I would like to know what Mr. Rosso means by “run” by Whitmans students. Students seemed to have the least amount of information available to them at the U of M where I received my BS in Geology. Perhaps Mr. Rosso could expand on his idea of the program?

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Whitman news since 1896
Give Prisoners the Gift of a Whitman Education