The Bard Prison Initiative

For many convicts, prison offers little in the way of rehabilitation. Securing employment after release becomes difficult and recidivism is high. According to Bard College, one half to two thirds of the 750,000 prisoners released each year return to prison within only a few years.  The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) was created to change that! BPI offers incarcerated men and women the opportunity to earn their associate’s or bachelor’s degree while serving their sentences. There are currently 250 men and women enrolled with BPI at 5 New York State prisons; it is the largest program of its kind.

Prior to 1994, financial aid was offered to prisoners wishing to further their education while incarcerated. After Pell Grant eligibility was revoked, BPI established a new way for inmates to earn degrees in 1999, an initiative funded by generous donors instead of federal aid. By 2005, the first candidates were awarded Bard College degrees.

Check out the following video for an inspiring overview of what the Bard Prison Initiative is all about, then read on for more details!

“The goal of education is not to turn a man into a brick layer, but to turn a brick layer into a full man.” – W.B. Dubois

What Does BPI Offer?

BPI offers prisoners the opportunity to earn either their associate’s or bachelor’s degree in liberal arts while an inmate. Over 50 different liberal arts courses are offered in prisons through BPI, along with some employment preparation courses for graduates approaching their release date. Courses include literature, foreign language, philosophy, history and the social sciences, mathematics, science, and the arts. All courses are taught by Bard College faculty and faculty from other regional colleges. Students are held to the same academic standards as they would be on the Bard College campus.


What is BPI’s Mission?

Prison does not exist solely for punishment, but also for rehabilitation. BPI was created to change the lives of prisoners, offering them advanced education and the ability to “return home with confidence and hope… able to find and hold satisfying jobs in a range of fields.” BPI notes on its website that it is “committed to closing the revolving door of crime and imprisonment and changing lives with education.”

BPI has proven to have a positive effect on correctional facilities. The program is so successful that prisoners in non-BPI prisons often improve their behavior in order to request a transfer to earn their degree. Positive effects last outside of prison as well – nearly all of BPI students have attended Bard College or another New York college post-incarceration to earn their full degree if they did not complete the degree while in prison. Some BPI alumni have gone on to apply to graduate programs, while the majority find gainful employment after their release.

The program also reduces some of the penal system’s financial burden. According to Bard, overall, close to 68% of released prisoners are rearrested within three years, while in a prison with educational opportunities, under 22% are rearrested. BPI has seen phenomenally low re-incarceration rates, with less than 2% of its graduates returning to prison! Since the cost of housing a prisoner for a year is $29,000 and some 2.3 million people populate U.S. prisons, this initiative has the potential to save taxpayers millions.

BPI is in the process of expanding through their Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison program. Through this consortium, Wesleyan University and Grinnell College have both established educational programs at correctional facilities in Connecticut and Iowa. Over the next 5 years, leaders of this program have plans to found additional branches in up to 10 more states.