College Behind Bars
by NYYM Black Concerns Committee
After the murder of George Floyd, the Black Concerns Committee decided to try to support projects that addressed structural racism. In New York State, structural racism = mass incarceration. Our College Behind Bars Task Group recommended that we support expansion of the Bard Prison College Program at Fishkill Correctional Facility. The Black Concerns Committee and the Prisons Committee approved the recommendation and put their Sharing Fund dollars to work by contributing $3,500 for the prison college program expansion. The advantages of expanding this program at Fishkill are tremendous: not only will BPI be able to double the size of its BA program, but the second site will also create opportunities for students to transfer to a medium-security facility without sacrificing their academics. They will no longer have to transfer to a maximum security penitentiary to attain their college degree.
Our Task Group researched approximately 28 prison college programs. What we found out was that many of the prison college programs the NYS Department of Corrections had listed on their website were no longer functioning. We initially thought that the reason was COVID. However, when we investigated further we found out that in many cases there was a lack of financial resources. In other instances there was a hostile environment from the surrounding locality where the prison was located. We also found out that there was a great need for college preparatory classes as many of the incarcerated students’ academic were not up to college entry level even when they had their high school diploma or GED.
After careful investigations involving numerous discussions with college administrations and ongoing task group meetings, the decision was made to utilize Sharing Fund dollars to support the Bard Prison Initiative. This program was presented in the Ken Burns College Behind Bars documentary on public television. One student is quoted in the documentary, “Prison is to punish. It’s not about creating productive beings. Individuals are not being prepared for anything other than what they’ve already been doing—crime.”
College Behind Bars is a transformative story about the power of education and how it can change lives and also benefit society at large. Once commonplace in American prisons, higher education declined precipitously after 1994, when Congress ended federal Pell Grants for inmates as part of the Clinton Crime Bill. For more than two decades, as “tough on crime” policies made America the world’s leading jailer, there was almost no federal or state funding for college in prison, despite its proven efficacy in preventing recidivism. In the nearly 20 years since BPI began, more than 500 alumni have been released, and fewer than four percent have gone back. The program currently enrolls 300 men and women in six prisons, and costs $6,000 per student per year, most of it privately funded. Currently, there are 3 main needs: 1. expand and support the new BA program at Fishkill; 2. financially support re-entry program; and 3. advocacy/ community education for their program and similar programs.
The Barrington Dunbar Fund for Black Development has utilized Sharing Fund dollars to support Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison. There is a great need to help prepare incarcerated students for college courses and Hudson link sponsors support for their college readiness programs.