Maximum Security Education

How Some Inmates Are Getting A Top-Notch Education Behind Bars

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The United States is good at getting criminals into prison: we have over two million people incarcerated right now, more than any other Western country. But what we're not good at is keeping them out once they've served their time—half of all ex-cons end up right back in the penitentiary.

No one doubts that one of the best ways to rehabilitate criminals is through educating them while they're in prison, but who wants to pay for prisoners to go to college when most people have trouble coughing up money for their own kids' education?

Correspondent Bob Simon found one college that does. Bard, an elite private college is offering true liberal arts degrees to some inmates in New York state. It's not what you'd imagine goes on behind the bars of a maximum security prison. And by the way, the program doesn't cost taxpayers a dime.

It looks and sounds like an ordinary college graduation ceremony: there are caps and gowns, the handing out of diplomas. But a group of men receiving their degrees from Bard College will not be leaving to go out and make their mark on the world—they are inmates at the Eastern Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in New York state.

Most prisoners ended up at Eastern Correctional Facility by committing violent crimes, like assault, rape, and murder, with sentences ranging from seven years to life. It's not the type of place you'd expect to walk into and find the inmates studying 18th century European history.

The Bard College program, which is privately funded, has been in this prison for six years and the academics are tough. One inmate tells Simon he and other inmates study five or six hours a day, outside of class, to make the grade.

The classes they take change each semester but what they have in common is that they're not practical courses—they're true liberal arts courses, like English, sociology, philosophy, and German.

Salih Israel pushed for a German course because, he says, he wanted to be able to read German philosophers in their original language. "I mean, you've got Hegel, you have Marx, you have Kant. A lot of those prevailing ideas – they're in German," he explains.

Salih Israel, by the way, is serving 20 to 40 years for shooting a woman in the course of a robbery.

"What do you say to somebody who says you should be learning a trade, some vocational training, instead of all this philosophy?" Simon asks inmate Joe Bergamini.

"Well, a vocational training will teach you how to do something, to have a job, but it doesn't teach you how to think, and I think that's the problem a lot of men in prison have is that they're not thinking, they're reacting. And a vocational program might give you the skills, to have a job, but it's not gonna give you skills to have a life," says Bergamini, who is in prison for killing his own mother 16 years ago.

Reshawn Hughes shot and killed a man the following year. He was far from being college material. Before he was incarcerated, Hughes admits he had never read a book. Now, he says he hopes to continue his education until he gets his Ph.D.

Wes Caines has already served 17 years for taking part in a shootout in which one man died and another was seriously injured.

He knows how lucky he is to be getting an elite education from Bard. "They made an investment in people that society had written off and people who even today feel that we shouldn't have this opportunity," Caines tells Simon.

Not every prisoner gets the opportunity; only about 10 percent of the inmates who apply to the college program are accepted. Prison life can be so routine and depressing, it's no wonder that these men jump at the chance to escape with their minds, if not with their bodies.

Travis Darshan dropped out of school when he was 14. When he was 17, he was arrested with two friends for robbing and killing a taxi driver.

Darshan never dreamed he'd get a college education. Asked how he felt when he got in, Darshan tells Simon, "Oh, I was elated. I was elated. It was, it was almost like they told me I was going home. … I really was. I felt like it was a new chapter in my life that it gave me a chance to start over."

"To these people locked up, this is just a psychological lifesaver. A string of hope even if their release is 10, 15, 20 years out," says Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, a liberal arts college located about an hour from the prison but in every other sense worlds away.