Max Kenner, founder and executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), spoke in the Red Pit on Thursday evening. His talk, titled “Values of a Liberal Education: Reflections on Ten Years of the Bard Prison Initiative,” addressed not only BPI but also treatment toward incarcerated people on a national level.
In 1999, Kenner launched a tutoring program aimed at increasing literacy in prisons near Bard College. At the time, he was a student at Bard, just beginning to recognize his potential to effect change.
“I realized that there were so many people my age who were making the same geographic trip to enter institutions that were doing exactly the opposite,” said Kenner.
Bard decided to build upon the student organization in 2001, when it began to offer credit-bearing classes to inmates. In 2005, Bard granted five students BPI’s first college degrees.
Kenner asked the audience to consider a few questions before he began his talk:
1. Do we think that the United States is preparing young people for the challenges of the century ahead?
2. What do we envision the roles of educational institutions to be?
3. What is the role of the things these institutions profess to hold dear?
4. What are you doing here?
By “here,” Kenner was, of course, referring to Hamilton College. Why do we attribute such worth to a liberal arts education at an elite institution? How do we believe it will benefit us in the long term?
As a result of “an increasing… cynicism, not just about the purpose and value of education but about young people themselves,” Kenner says that at increasing rates, “younger people are sent to prison for smaller crimes for longer periods of time for higher amounts of taxpayer dollars.”
On the other hand, BPI is an “embarrassingly inexpensive” program to run. Kenner explained that the College and BPI have a very simple two-part agreement: BPI has to raise the funds necessary to run its programs, and there is an understanding that “every credit and every degree is of the same standard, quality and rigor as what happens on campus.”
“So many institutions are crippled by their wealth,” Kenner said.
“We’ve had an exercise in making these institutions more inclusive,” he added. “But these institutions became more expensive as we were trying to be more inclusive.”
That is not to call BPI’s admission process any cakewalk. Once a year, typically during the summer, prisoners are invited to apply to an associate degree program.
“Everything we do is in conjunction with the prisons themselves,” Kenner said. “Admission is exceedingly competitive.”
Anywhere from 125 to 200 applicants arrive at a designated location to complete a two-hour reading comprehension and essay writing exercise. A committee reviews the essays, and applicants whose essays stand out in either their grasp of grammar or strong insight make it on to the next round of the process—the interview.
“We take no consideration to length of sentence or nature of conviction,” Kenner said of the admission process.
After a few years in the associate degree program, Kenner explained, students become eligible to apply to the bachelor’s degree program. Their applications are sent directly to Bard’s Office of Admission.
“The location is really arbitrary; we could be working with people returning from war… labor unions,” said Kenner. “The people in classrooms who have only been condescended to and have never been challenged are really extraordinary.”
At Hamilton, students have begun to reach out to local prisons. With the help of Professor of English and Creative Writing Doran Larson, seniors Nora Grenfell and Maeve Gately launched the Marcy Prison Project. Based at Marcy Correctional Facility, the Project’s scope includes literacy tutoring, book discussion groups with Hamilton faculty members and film screenings on the Hill.
“We’re inspired by the Bard Prison Initiative and would love to see a similar program develop at Hamilton,” Grenfell said.