Jennel Nesbitt was incarcerated for 11 years. She says it was a journey defined by resilience and transformation. The early years were filled with anger, but when she was accepted to the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program run by Bard College NY, her situation went from negative to positive. Given her background, she didn't expect to be accepted, but when she was, her life began to have meaning.
Founded in 1999 by Max Kenner, then a student at Bard, BPI has made a significant impact on prison culture and postrelease success rates for its students. To date, approximately 400 Bard degrees have been conferred.
Dr. Megan Callaghan, director of college operations for BPI, is responsible for recruiting faculty for BPI and outlining the curriculum. In addition to working with Bard faculty, BPI also collaborates with faculty from nearby colleges. All teach the same sort of courses they teach on their main campuses with the same standards, expectations and level of rigor.Background
Callaghan, an anthropologist, first worked with BPI while a visiting assistant professor at Bard.
“In both locations, I had students who were genuinely interested in discussing new ideas, pulling apart texts and learning more about the course material. There's an obvious appeal to that kind of energy and engagement in the classroom,” says Callaghan.
Prior to 1994, when inmates in state and federal prisons became ineligible for Pell Grants, higher education in prison was relatively common. Now it is dependent on privately funded programs like BPI. Callaghan and her colleagues encourage faculty and administration around the country to start their own college in prison programs.
“Having the opportunity to do the work in the classroom that I love while also thinking longer term about the significance of this work and about what it needs to look like in the future has been very significant to me,” Callaghan says. “Part of my responsibilities as an administrator come down to identifying the right people—students, faculty, advisors, tutors—inviting those people to come together in a classroom, saying something about what they're there to do and then getting out of their way and letting them do that. It's actually very exciting to see that work.”
While it's easy for Callaghan to speak about how talented, dedicated and intellectually aware BPI students are, she's wary of waxing poetic because it shouldn't be a surprise. Kenner has been very outspoken that the education system has failed many of these incarcerated individuals, and in addition to restoring college in prison opportunities, there needs to be careful consideration given to how to keep these individuals out of prison by fostering greater access to higher education.
In addition to working to expand college in prison opportunities in New York state, BPI is part of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison. Callaghan says BPI is in contact with groups in more than 10 other states.
“What I hear from faculty over and over again is that BPI is an opportunity to do the kind of teaching that drew them to academia in the first place,” Callaghan says. “They recognize the value of the kind of engagement that students bring to the classroom.”Impact
The rate of postrelease employment is high and the recidivism rate is a stunningly low 4% for all BPI students and 2.5% for those who complete Bard degrees before leaving prison, as opposed to 40%, the recidivism rate typically cited for prisoners in general.
“Across the board, BPI students make it clear that college is incredibly important to them,” says Callaghan. “Why it matters can be very different individual to individual, but the value the students place on their education, and the fact that it matters so much helps hold everyone to a higher standard—our faculty, administration and fellow students. Everybody works that much harder because of it.”
BPI alumni are working in a wide range of jobs, from human resources to public health to one who runs a community initiative program for young people who've had some involvement with the court system. Many BPI students return to the neighborhoods they came from upon release and work to make their communities better.Female BPI students
From 2006 to 2012, BPI operated inside the Bayview Correctional Facility, a women's prison in New York City. It was evacuated during Hurricane Sandy and then permanently closed in 2013.
Nesbitt was among the BPI students affected, and she despaired that her higher education opportunity had evaporated. Eventually, she was able to return to classes and finish the semester. She completed her associate degree requirements before her release and is now working and going to school to complete her bachelor's degree.
Immediately after the evacuation at Bayview, Callaghan and others at BPI worked to make sure the students could complete their Bard degrees. Next, they established a new location inside a women's prison.
BPI currently enrolls approximately 30 students at the Taconic Correctional Facility. That is 10% of the BPI student body.
“This was a moment of crisis that we had no choice but to turn into an opportunity,” Callaghan says.
One student who was among the first cohort of BPI students at Taconic says she was determined to redefine her life but didn't know how until higher education presented itself. During the entrance exam, she was asked to interpret a literary passage and then asked to articulate how education was important to her.
“When I received the letter of acceptance, I saw the words thinking, discipline, commitment, opportunity and transformation. I saw these words as a new beginning,” says the student, who declined to give her name. She earned her associate degree in 2015. She is still incarcerated and working on her bachelor's degree.
“We have learned to be patient. We have learned to continue when it's difficult; we have learned to listen to each other,” she said at the 2015 graduation. “We see each other as students and as people with possibility and a future. And it is a future in a world that needs what we have to contribute.”