BY: M. TOMOSKI
With the construction of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829 America’s prison system became a model for the world. Its wagon wheel design allowed guards to monitor the entire prison from a tower in the centre while the inmates – like children – spent their time alone to think about what they’d done. Cherry Hill, as it was known, was built on the radical idea that a criminal did not need to be punished to understand the gravity of his sins.
That stone fortress has since become a museum. Its courtyard displays a three dimensional red graph where the voice of Steve Buscemi explains that America now imprisons more of its own people than China. It’s an experience which proves that Eastern State still leads those who explore its corridors to wonder, ‘what went wrong?’
In late September Harvard’s debate team was invited to Eastern New York Correctional Facility where they took on a group of inmates on the subject of education. Despite their own disagreement with the stance, the inmates argued that children of illegal immigrants were not entitled to a public education and won.
“There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend” the Harvard group posted on their Facebook page.
According to the Associated Press, in the two years since the inmates organized their team they have defeated Harvard, the University of Vermont, and developed a rivalry with the Military Academy at West Point.
The debate team is part of a program called the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) which offers a complete university education to prisoners.
The program is operated by Bard College in New York and currently has 300 students enrolled in over 60 courses at six prisons across the state. Executive Director Max Kenner created BPI to offer inmates a launching point for a better life after release.
Since the 1970s, America has developed the largest prison population in the world housing a quarter of the world’s inmates.
“Over the last generation…prisons have become the domestic institution that we’ve invested in above any others; before schools, before mental healthcare…it’s become the growth industry.” Kenner told public radio host Alan Chartock.
With 4,575 prisons in operation in the United States, the country has more places to put its criminals than its university students. In addition to this Kenner notes that, “it’s terribly predictable who’s going to end up in prison.”
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons 71% of the US inmate population is black or Hispanic, a statistic which has more to do with poverty than race. Lower income families tend to come from these backgrounds and are more likely to see crime as an alternative, especially when the cost of breaking the cycle is so high.
BPI’s opponents from Harvard pay an average of $45,000 a year in tuition alone and close to $70,000 when books, accommodations, and “unbilled” expenses are included. Even for state colleges average tuition is nearly $10,000 a year which means that in order to receive an education even those who don’t live in poverty are saddled with massive debt.
BPI is attempting to repair the system from the inside by changing the way inmates use their time in prison.
“Throughout the prison system, we’re looked at as if we’re not even human,” says student Wendessa Grant. “When we come to the classroom we’re individual college students as if we are on Bard’s campus and we have to give our all.”
Like any other school BPI takes applications from its potential students and accepts up to 15 each year. Those who apply are tested and interviewed, but once accepted they have the opportunity to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree from Bard College.
BPI students are taught by Bard’s staff and treated just as any other student on campus. They choose their own courses and design their own lives after release. Some go into their selected field while others have continued on to graduate school.
“Some people think that people in prison need vocational training, some people think they need God — something to prevent violence or something to address addiction.” Kenner says. “Our job as educators is to treat people in prison as individuals.”
This is why the program provides a wide range of options which include, language courses, mathematics, and social sciences. These options allow students to choose something they will continue to pursue once they’ve been released.
Manny Borras for example chose playwriting. “For a person who’s basically reduced to a number,” he says, “you don’t have too many outlets to express yourself.”
And his passion for the arts seems to be something he’s eager to share.
“You start gaining knowledge of your surroundings – of yourself – you start questioning politics, other religions, other cultures, other societies. And these are things we can bring back to the neighbourhood.”
Many graduates end up going into health and human services where they engage with their communities to reduce crime and the conditions that allow for it.
The program is funded entirety by donations and was expanded in 2009 to create the Consortium for Liberal Arts in Prison. It is now partnered with several universities including: Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Grinnell College in Iowa, Goucher College of Maryland, the Univeristy of Notre Dame and Holy Cross College in Indiana as well as the Freedom Education Project which operates inside the Washington Correctional Center for Women.
At the centre of BPI is an idea that was born at Eastern State, but never fully realized: Rehabilitation over punishment.
If a society is going to insist that inmates have done something wrong it should have the good sense to teach them what’s right.