Maximum Security Education

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

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The majority of students at Bard are white and privileged, like Max Kenner, who came up with the idea of the Bard prison program when he was a student in the 1990s. He had been volunteering in prisons and knew the inmates were hungry for an education, but few opportunities were available to them.

"I did not encounter one single superintendent who wasn't enthusiastic about the possibility of starting a college within that prison," says Kenner, who visited numerous prisons.

Asked if it is hard to get professors to teach in the program, Kenner tells Simon, "No one has once taught for us and not wanted to do it again."

Professor Tabetha Ewing teaches European history at Bard College, and last fall she also started teaching the same European history course to the prisoners.

How did she feel when she found herself in a room with prisoners and no guard?

"As soon as we shut the door and we began working, it was the most amazing experience," Ewing says. "We had an immediate rapport. And they took themselves and the work so seriously that I didn't have a moment to consider the absence of a guard."

"Did you have to make the course easier for the prisoners than you did for the students at Bard?" Simon asks.

"Once I was there three weeks, I just made it harder," she says. Ewing had to make the course harder, she told Simon, because the inmates studied harder.

The student-inmates have a room where they can study if they have free time during the day. Computers there, by the way, do not have Internet access. But much of their studying is done at night in their cells, surrounded by a constant din.

It may be hard to feel sympathy for criminals. It's also hard to get studying done here.

Travis Darshan acknowledges his cell does not make for an ideal study situation, but he says he manages by trying to block the noise out. "And when I begin to read, I try to focus in on my studies. And you kind of go into another world," he says. "You know, instead of hearing that noise, you just block it out. The distractions aren't available when your mind is centered on what you're reading."

Asked how the prisoners have surprised him, Bard College president Botstein says, "The most amazing thing, I have to say, the most shocking and absolutely unbelievable thing is that it takes radical incarceration, the loss of all hope to engender a genuine love of learning."

The Bard prison program isn't just at Eastern Correctional Facility—it is in four prisons in New York state and has about 120 students overall. Higher education in penitentiaries used to be common, but in 1994 Congress eliminated federal funding for prisoners to go to college and many programs folded. The issue was: why give free college educations to convicts when so many students who haven't committed crimes can't afford it?

"It's a fair argument but we treat inmates for medical reasons, we treat inmates for drug addiction, why aren't we treating inmates for educational needs?" says Commissioner Brian Fisher, the head of corrections for New York state.

Fisher says every study he's read shows that inmates given a college education are less likely to commit crimes once they are released. "Education changes people. And I think that's what prisons should do. Change somebody from one way of thinking to a different way of thinking," he says.

"It's a very liberal view of incarceration," Simon remarks.

"I don't think so. I think it's the logical view of incarceration. Going to prison is the punishment. Once in prison, it's our obligation to make them better than they were," Fisher explains.

And, he told 60 Minutes, inmates in college programs are easier for the prison system to manage. They tend not to stir up trouble by fighting and arguing, although when Simon and the team ran into a group of inmates in the prison yard, they were arguing about Rousseau and Machiavelli.

Listening to them talk, one could easily have been in a college quad rather than a prison yard. They spend their free time like so many undergraduates, exercising their intellectual muscles, debating century-old notions of ethics, morality and philosophy.