In the past three decades the number of prisoners in the United States has expanded at a rapid pace. Since the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, the government has imposed harsher mandatory sentences on drug-related crimes. Today, the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, and the second-largest prison population per capita, trailing only the island nation of Seychelles. The problem has gotten so bad that in 16 states the number of inmates exceeds the number of college students in on-campus housing. Even after being released from prison, those with a felony conviction are denied access to welfare benefits, public housing and student loans, which are important stepping stones for reintegration into society.
To help solve this problem, wealthy donors are funding college programs inside of prisons with the hope those who earn a college degree will be less likely to commit another crime, saving taxpayers money and increasing public safety. Such programs existed in some states until the 1990s when Congress made prisoners ineligible for federal grants, effectively defunding existing initiatives. Now, private foundations such as the Sunshine Lady Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Andrew Mellon Foundation award grants that fund programs such as The Bard Prison Initiative, which runs in six New York correctional facilities. This specific program, which offers a liberal arts curriculum, is highly competitive, with an acceptance rate of one in ten and a full application process.
The rigor of the initiative could be seen last week, when debaters from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility beat three students from the Harvard College Debating Union, a team considered by some to be the best in the nation. This was not the first big win for the prisoners, with the team beating the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the University of Vermont in 2014. The prisoners had to argue a point that they themselves opposed: that public schools should be able to deny enrollment to undocumented students. They built their argument around the idea that most of the schools attended by undocumented children were likely already failing so badly that the students were not learning. They further proposed nonprofits would step in and better educate undocumented children. The Harvard Debate Team was reportedly caught off guard and did not respond to parts of this argument.
The irony of the moment was that lawmakers in New York recently shot down a proposal to provide state grants for college classes for inmates throughout New York correctional facilities, denying those not in the Bard Prison Initiative enrollment in college. While lawmakers argued that money should instead be directed toward law-abiding citizens who were struggling to afford college, the Bard Prison Initiative’s results show that such programs can both save taxpayers money and give inmates an opportunity at a first-rate college education. Of the 300 alumni who have gone through the program, less than two percent have returned to prison, compared with New York as a whole, where 40 percent of convicts return to prison. The hope is that lawmakers reconsider college programs for inmates and institute plans that replicate the success of the Bard Prison Initiative across the nation, helping reverse the increase of incarceration rates and offering prisoners a chance at pursuing higher education.