Locations: Hudson Valley, New York (but Consortium partner sites, built on the same model are located in Connecticut, Maryland, Vermont, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, and Washington. New sites are in development in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.)
The 1994 Crime Bill made prisoners ineligible for the Federal Pell Grant, severely limiting access to higher education for the incarcerated. Federal Pell Grants provide money to low income individuals to attend colleges and universities. The Crime Bill wiped out college programs for the incarcerated nearly overnight. The Bard Prison Initiative started in 1999 to begin to fill the void . They gathered their first matriculating class in 2001. At that time, there were very few colleges providing education to prisoners, there was no public funding, and many people were opposed to the very notion that people in prison should be getting what appears to be essentially a free college education.
BPI strives to transform how education is perceived in the prison system by creating classrooms in prisons that mirror classes at Bard College, a private liberal arts college in New York state. Students of BPI are enrolled as full-time Bard students and experience rigorous learning and are guided through applications to graduate school and future employment. BPI has high expectations of their students and wants them to return to their communities to create positive change.
BPI has long championed the reinstatement of Pell eligibility for incarcerated people. Recently, BPI became a recipient of the Second Chance Pell Initiative, in which the Secretary of Education statutorily has authority to create experimental sites for populations that are otherwise ineligible for Pell as a result of current legislation. Over 200 colleges and universities applied to receive Pell money for incarcerated students, and 69 of those colleges and universities were selected. Bard is one such college. Other colleges and universities that are a part of BPI’s Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison to also receive Second Chance Pell include Wesleyan University in partnership with Middlesex Community College, Holy Cross College, Bennington College, Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound in partnership with Tacoma Community College, and Goucher College. It is the first time that there has been federal money available to fund college for incarcerated people since 1994. At this time Pell amounts to around $5000 per student. There is hope that more systemic change can occur as as a result of the Second Chance Pell Initiative among its creators, because it pushes the public conversation forward during a time of less intense public backlash. BPI students are Bard students, fully enrolled in the college and building a transcript identical to Bard’s transcript on the main campus.
Admission is a two part process. The first part requires the applicant have a GED because of the rules given by the Department of Corrections. The crime the person was convicted of does not play a factor into the admissions process. The second part is comprised of a writing response essay, in which the applicant sits in a room with a proctor and they are given 3 to 5 excerpts from various college level readings and then need to write a handwritten response. BPI does not look at grammar, spelling, outside knowledge, or if they can correctly interpret the piece. They look for people with active minds, intellectual curiosity, and potential for growth. Afterwards, on the Bard campus, a group of professors from different fields reads the writing and assesses it. Around 30 in-person interviews are conducted in prison by BPI faculty and about 15 new students are selected to enroll in each of the six prisons that Bard’s college programs run at the start of every new school year.
BPI started with some foundation support, some small donations, and received a large Soros Foundation Grant, which pushed forward the consortium work that exists today. As the consortium grew, more private donations came in, as well as more foundation support, especially from the Ford Foundation. In 2016, for the very first time, BPI began receiving some public funding from federal Pell grants and also some state level funding. However, because public funding isn’t always consistent, BPI will continue raising private money from foundations and donations so that there’s stability.
BPI is very selective, so prisoners can apply multiple times without being accepted. However, the purpose of BPI’s Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison is to try to include as many students as possible in college programs all across the nation. Students may also not remain in jail long enough to earn a BA. That is why BPI provides an associates degree for a 2 year course completion. Although there are female students, the majority of BPI students are male, because they make up the larger prison population and are more easily accessible.