• August 31, 2015

Doing Time, With a Degree to Show for It


Illustration by Michael Glenwood

Enlarge Image
close 5715-Lagermann

Illustration by Michael Glenwood

Jonah lives in a correctional facility in upstate New York, where he is serving a sentence of 12 years to life on a felony conviction. While others spend time lifting weights, Jonah reads W.E.B. Du Bois and John Dewey, studies genetics, and wants to find time to read Walter Isaacson's biography of Albert Einstein. His friend Damian is finishing his senior thesis on the conservative tradition in American political thought. Both men have dates with the parole board in the next few months. Having already earned associate degrees, and well on the way to their bachelor's, they hope their academic accomplishments will help them win release (although there is no guarantee that will be the case). They are eager to join some of their already-released college friends now working in jobs ranging from serving as a counselor for AIDS patients in New York City to managing a waste-treatment plant in Westchester County, N.Y.

Jonah and Damian are among the more than two million men and women behind bars in America. Like them, most incarcerated individuals are likely to be released and to return to their old communities. Thanks to their prison education, Jonah and Damian have a good chance of doing well once they go home.

The same is not true for many of their prison peers. We must ask ourselves: Would we rather help those we incarcerate build constructive lives, or have them return to prison—as more than 50 percent currently do?

The answer seems self-evident: Prisons are a drain on national resources. Last year prisons cost the nation upward of $55-billion, which exceeds the Department of Defense's 2011 spending request for the war in Iraq. The waste in human resources is staggering. Beyond whatever talents prisoners themselves possess, children of prisoners are more likely to end up in prison, too. It is urgent that we find ways to help more people leave prison ready to work and to contribute positively to their families and communities.

Education is an obvious, proven first step toward gainful employment after release from prison. It has been well documented that earning a degree in prison is the best strategy available to reduce recidivism. Studies conducted from 1991 to 2004 found that those who earned postsecondary degrees in prison were significantly less likely to return than those who did not. A study conducted at the correctional facility for women in Bedford Hills, N.Y., found that among women released between 1985 and 1999, those who had participated in the prison's college program had a 7.7-percent recidivism rate after 36 months, while those who had not gone to such classes had a 29-percent rate.

Despite such evidence, most college-in-prison programs closed their doors after the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 removed prisoners from eligibility for Pell Grants, the main federal vehicle for student financial aid.

In the past few years, raising the rates of college enrollment and completion has become a high national priority. Despite the welcome focus on postsecondary education, however, few people are considering the importance of educating the multitude of college-age individuals now in prison. I feel keenly about this issue because I teach in one of the few remaining college-in-prison programs—the Bard Prison Initiative, part of Bard College. The program offers liberal-arts study, culminating in Bard degrees, in five New York State prisons. The curriculum is writing-intensive and includes literature, foreign languages, history, social science, science, art, and mathematics.

I have taught for over 30 years at Columbia, New York, and Harvard Universities, but teaching in the Bard program has been eye-opening. Students are selected on the basis of motivation rather than prior accomplishment. Only one in 10 applicants is admitted. Just 17 percent had graduated from high school before being incarcerated. From the start, they are held to high standards, challenged intellectually, and supported (some with undergraduate tutors from Bard) as they acquire basic skills along with college-level content. The combination enables them to move up the academic ladder with amazing speed, facility, and success—some are completing Calculus III, many have become fluent in German, and some now write as well as the undergraduates I taught at Harvard.

Last winter I met several former students from the prison program for coffee in New York City. All had been released in the previous few years, and all were doing well. One especially impressed me: He was tall, well dressed, and had a Bluetooth headset in his ear. He now lives in Queens with his wife and 13-year-old son and works with at-risk youth at a social-service agency. Having earned an associate degree from Bard, he had enrolled in a B.A. program at the City University of New York and wanted to move on to a master's in social work.

Participating in the Bard program, he said, had not directly helped him get a job, but it had "put the puzzle together" for him and enabled him "to get ready to be different when he got home." As I pressed him to explain, he talked of growing up in Harlem, where his friends in the street always wanted to know "who was putting us down." Bard taught him, he said, to think critically about statements like that. His classes in history and anthropology had enabled him to understand his situation in a social context. "Now," he said, smiling, "I know life is more than 'us versus them.'"

The Bard Prison Initiative is a beacon of light in a few American prisons. I have found it inspiring—but also dispiriting. Leading the world in the rate of incarceration is not a benchmark of which we should be proud. And yet our political and philanthropic leaders seem indifferent to the potential of education to help bring incarcerated people back into the mainstream of American society.

Skeptics claim that college in prison is an unjustifiable expense. At a minimum, the programs require about $5,000 per student, per year. At a time when so many Americans are struggling to pay for college, that cost is difficult to swallow. But crime carries a high price tag, too. We need analyses of how incarcerated students might contribute in various ways, including through public service and post-release repayment, as well as a better public understanding of costs relative to benefits. Researchers at Iowa State University have calculated that dealing with a single murder, after all expenses are accounted for—those of the victim, of the criminal-justice system, and in lost productivity—costs $17.25-million. College is cheap by comparison.

Have we lost the faith in education that once made the United States a place of opportunity for so many people? I hope not. But demonstrating that faith, and with it continuing optimism about the nation's future, requires extending the national agenda to include college in prison. Not all, but many, people in prison can benefit from education. Opening the doors to incarcerated men and women can help strengthen our democracy and raise our standing around the world.

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann teaches history at Bard College, where she is a senior scholar at the Levy Economics Institute and a distinguished fellow at the Bard Prison Initiative.


1. cwoodso1 - November 28, 2010 at 07:57 pm

This is great! It is totally understandable, people's feelings about spending all this money on people who have committed crimes; however, the long-term effect is extremely beneficial to our communities. In most cases, society did an injustice to those people, so giving them a second chance to become something builds hope for them and our communities.

2. nyceducator - November 29, 2010 at 08:41 am

We should stop incarcerating non-violent crimminals with violent prisoners. People who commit petty crimes should have the punishment fit the crime. For example, if you grafitti a building you should clean that building and do hard labor in that community. Pick up garbage, clean toilets, plant floweres, volunteer at a pet and homeless shelter.
Most people would change for the better by doing physical labor at the end of such program the individual should have to enroll in a vocational or local college and learn to contribute productively to society.

3. pedromartinez - November 29, 2010 at 09:32 am


Thank you for sharing a different view point which I believe is right on target. I am so tired of hearing politicians and thousand others complaining on the amount of tax payers money spent on our prison population. However, they do not take the next step to find a solution. Yes, there is "redemption" and it begins with changing our mind set about punishment. This is a perfect example of money well spent! The criteria for the selection is key and should be addjusted for prisoners' dispositions and progress for rehabilitation.

4. jsnelson - November 29, 2010 at 09:50 am

Is there any research or data on religious colleges and universities doing this type of program as ministry? It would seem that if a prisoner is not eligible for federal aid, it might be something that faith-based universities might find congruent with their missions.

5. aberglow - November 29, 2010 at 09:58 am

My concern is what happens after they finish? Having worked with women re-entering the workforce after incarceration I've seen first hand how discriminatory employers are to people with a criminal record. I do believe that education is the path to a more productive future, but will employers give them a chance? Any program like this has to have career advising and job development tied to it or it just leads to more frustration on the part of the formerly incarcerated.

6. scubagrrl88 - November 29, 2010 at 10:32 am

Thank you for this eye-opening article. I feel it should also be published in another more widespread venue such as the NY Times or even in a popular magazine like Time or Newsweek. I am saying this because I think diverse audiences need to read something like this and soak it in and really think about it. I teach in a very large criminal justice program on the west coast in northern California. I am very familiar with the issues surrounding cost of prison, per inmate compared to college student, and on and on. I am also well aware that California has been spending infinitely more money on prisons than higher education. It is ironic because in general, while the public may actually accept some of these ideas about educating prisoners, rehabilitation, reentry programming and so on, most politians do not, or if they do personally, they would never campaign on such an argument. Why? Because it sounds, to public ears, like a dead argument. Everyone knows that if a politician is going to be successful, they need to appear hard on crime, when talking about the crime issue.

But, the public and our politians need to rethink this. And so do employers when considering hiring those with criminal histories. Many folks do not really understand recidivism rates, what happens to someone when they come out. They are "in the moment" and want retribution for the crime, at whatever cost. Likewise, I would hedge a bet that most of the public has no clue what it costs to incarcerate someone and how much is going to prisons and how much less is going to higher education. And that money flowing into prisons is clearly not going to education programs there!

So, I would say, like the author here, that we need to get this message out about the waste that is going on, both in terms of economic and social capital, inside of our country's prisons. Until the public is aware and presses for change, politians will do the same thing over and over again, in the aim of one goal only: to get reelected (let's be honest here, ALL politicians only want one thing, to get reelected. I do not think they really care about the issues. If they do, it is 'care in connection with the vote.')

Thanks again for this great article. I am going to email it to my faculty and provide the link for my students to read.

7. prillva - November 29, 2010 at 11:25 am


Lipscomb University (church affiliated private university in Nashville, Tennessee) is running a program at the Tennessee Prison for Women (TPW) that began purely as a university- and donor-funded initiative. We take some of our traditional undergrads to the prison once a week for a seminar course with qualifying prisoners, who are also selected by motivation. Sections are kept to 30 maximum, population usually half and half. Relationships are formed, and all involved learn much more than the official course content. Faculty members are paid, but all of them donate the money for scholarships to pay for inmates' books and supplies.

The LIFE Program was initially viewed with suspicion by the prison officials and the Tennessee Department of Corrections, who were afraid the program might be a cover for preaching at the prisoners. We were limited at first to one section of one course per semester. Well before the end of the first semester, some of the same officials were asking us to increase the opportunities. Access and funding are still issues, so we do not as yet offer even a full associate's degree. However, those plans are almost in place.

I was Dean of Arts and Humanities when this program was started, and helped make sure it happened. I too wonder why more service-learning institutions are not working on programs like this.

Valery Prill
Special Assistant to the Provost for Global Learning
Lipscomb University

8. cwinton - November 29, 2010 at 12:17 pm

You would think programs like this would be a no-brainer, but apparently we have far too many who simply will not consider the very evident long-term benefits, economic and otherwise, provided by programs like this. Years ago, I had a student who was selected to participate in an experimental monitored-release program for the purpose of pursuing a college degree. Various bad influences had put her in a downward spiral until she ended up under arrest and facing jail. She later confessed to me that her epiphany had occurred early in her program of study when she had come to one of my classes stoned only to discover that being so was totally incompatible with learning linear algebra. She went on from there to graduate, obtain a graduate degree from another school, and become a well-paid employee of IBM. As for the program that turned her life around, those in power chose not to continue its funding, presumably so as to build more prison cells.

9. panacea - November 29, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Having worked as a correctional nurse, I've seen first hand what our prisons are; warehouses for people. It is cheaper in the long run, and more beneficial to society, to educate rather than incarcerate. I also think prison is the last place we should put non-violent offenders.

We forget that we send people to prison AS punishment, not FOR punishment. If we educate our violent offenders, we are not rewarding them. They still have to live in the prison enviornment, which is a harsh and dangerous place to live where inmates are pressured to engage in the gang lifestyle as a survival mechanism. Obtaining an education in this enviornment is not easy. It is hard.

Yet even most violent offenders will eventually get out. I want them to leave with the skills and motivation to earn an honest living, not to leave hopeless and bitter. The latter is a recipie for someone else to get hurt or killed.

10. 11241058 - November 29, 2010 at 01:45 pm

This article was enlightening. Many times we create programs for groups of individuals with no regard for the individual. These are cases which show how society can do better. Most of the time prisons run by looking out for the needs of those who are securing the facilities. This is vital for survival. Prisoners pick this up quick and use it as a rationale for doing more harm while doing their time and extending their sentence. Education certainly is the key to change and might be the solution for those prisoners who are motivated. I would assume that finding the right person for the program is essential if these innovative programs can survive and flourish.

11. reformingarts1 - November 29, 2010 at 02:06 pm

Thank you for this article and your efforts to make a difference. As a volunteer educator in the Georgia prison system, I have spent a lot of time contemplating how to push higher education. The complete lack of funding and, quite frankly, the faith-based initiatives are problematic. If Lipscomb's program is secular in nature, I applaud them for using the current political framework to actually help the prisoners. I was surprised, however, that the prison officials were concerned about them preaching to the prisoners.

12. allenh - November 29, 2010 at 05:54 pm


I think the problem that you're going to have with selling this idea is that some taxpayer is going to say "it wouldn't cost us any money if they had not committed the crime in the first place."

No crime would mean no need for warehouses for people thus no need to pay for education programs.

Since most folks will eventually get out, it does make sense to prepare them to do something other than what they did to get themeselves locked up in the first place but I think the issue is bigger than what you mention here.

I won't go as far as someone above who said "In most cases, society did an injustice to those people" but the problem seems to be changing their life circumstances/mindsets away from what ever gets them in prison.

Less crime = less prisons = less need for programs like yours.

13. simo1234 - November 29, 2010 at 07:48 pm

Ellen, thanks for shining a light into the prison system, and opening the bars a crack to let others see what is going on there. So many of the prisoners end up there precisely because their earlier education systems let them down. Lowering recidivism rates by educating prisoners makes financial sense and ethical sense as well.
Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez
Bard College at Simon's Rock

14. henneberg30 - November 30, 2010 at 03:57 am

What a shame! Stop just reading and commenting on the news. Learn how you can solve the crimes at "United Forensic College"

15. wturnertsu - November 30, 2010 at 11:53 am

The evidence of the extent to which we as a society benefits from providing education to our members, particularly those who, like the ones identified in this article, have, for whatever reason, lost their ways, is overwhelming! The only thing more overwhelming is the reason such education programs described in this article are not being implemented throughout the United States, especially in Mississippi.

Data clearly reflects that the vast majority of the men and women incarcerated in America are behind bars for non-violent offenses. In Mississippi, more than half of the persons in prison are there for possessing less than $50 worth of cocaine. Sure, they were charged with "distribution" and "intent to sell." But, a more cursory examination clearly proves that they were addicts and the incident of possession a mere natural consequence of their affliction from what the American Medical Association has empathetically classified as a disease.

So, several obvious questions beg to be answered: Foremost among those questions is this: Why has an association charged with the responsiblity of overseering the health concerns of the society so silent in the face of such a stark disregard for the AMA's well-researched and considered findings, relative to cocaine? Has the AMA sold-out to the ABA? Is there a tacit understanding that the AMA will ignore it's own research in exchange for fewer malpractices lawsuits against it? Are members of both the AMA and ABA invested in the prison-industrial complex? Is it that neither give a damn, since the prison population is disproportionately composed of young, menacing looking black males? Does the incarceration of large numbers of blacks and browns, some how or the other, automatically eliminate potential competition from them for seats in collegs and universities? Employments? Affection? Is it any less regressive for society to imprison individuals sick with addicition than it to imprison those emotionally sick from depression, childhood diseases or traumatic head injuries?

A society of progressive citizens ask questions. A really progresive one answers them honestly, then commits to sincerely addressing them. How progressive are we?

If you educate an incarcerated person, that person is less likely to return, once released. Can the prison-industrial complex continue to prosper with fewer humans to convert to warehouse fodder? How long will the political and social advantages one segment of the society derive from the wholesale incarceration of another justify the exorbitant monetary cost requird to maintain the prison system? Can the fear, paranoia ginned-up by a particular political party operating within our society, whose tactics were/are aped by the other major party, continue to influence the nation's courts, legislative bodies and executives branches?

The time has long since come for us, as a people, to re-examine what we have allowed our system of justice to become. We must discontinue the practice of feeding our young to a system that brands and cripples them for life. We can ill-afford to shoot ourselves in the foot and to handicap ourselves when the competition from India, China and Europe pits their peoples against our people. We need all of our people: blacks, whites, hispanic, and all others, regardless of slight imperfecion in their character that may or may not have led to unfortunate run-ins with the law for what were, essentially, petty offenses. Bush and his handlers called it "youthful indescretion." Another President, to his credit, acknowledged indulging, but simply managed to avoid being caught. Even another president indulged, but simply did "not inhale."

In short, people, whether or not incarcerated persons receive education behinds bar will require considerably more honesty on the part of American citizens than we've heretofore demonstrated the capacity to achieve. Our hypocrisy must cease. If not, the weight of the prison-industrial complex is going to certainly sink us all!

16. oscarw - November 30, 2010 at 09:46 pm

So your star student is serving a sentence of 12 to life. With New York's new drug laws, this person would get a reduction in time if incarcerated for a MAJOR deug charge. This leads me to believe that the sentence was imposed for either a murder, an arson of an occupied dwelling, or kidnapping. Those are the other A-1 felonies under New York's Penal Law.
I think we are better served by this scholar serving the rest of the sentence because social work or carpentry is not in that person's future and tragedy for another family is what will be the result of the Parole Board's gullibility based upon those "intellectual pursuits" of your student.

17. irvi7996 - December 01, 2010 at 11:46 am

This is a great article. I was especially arrested by this excerpt:

As I pressed him to explain, he talked of growing up in Harlem, where his friends in the street always wanted to know "who was putting us down." Bard taught him, he said, to think critically about statements like that. His classes in history and anthropology had enabled him to understand his situation in a social context. "Now," he said, smiling, "I know life is more than 'us versus them.'"

Life is more than 'us versus them.' I'm glad that history and anthropology classes are teaching this to the incarcerated. But for most students, liberal arts classes teach just the opposite - that history is the history of identity-group-based oppression. Just look at Howard Zinn's textbooks. It sounds as if colleges and universities have something to learn from programs such as the Bard Prison Initiative.

To read further on prison education, check out this article from the NAS: http://www.nas.org/polArticles.cfm?doctype_code=Article&doc_id=214: "Inmates in liberal arts programs frequently invoke the language of inner freedom to describe their experience. The irony, of course, is that so many students who are on the outside attending elite four-year colleges and universities adopt the pretence that their freedom is phony and that they are victims of an oppressive society."

18. 11142053 - December 01, 2010 at 09:45 pm

There are many college programs in prison (although far from enough) that have been started since the Pell grants were cut off. In New York, in addition to the program associated with Bard, is Hudson Link which started in Sing-Sing and has spread with the encouragement of the head of the Department of Corrections.

For many years the New York Theological Seminary has offered a batchelors program to men in the NY prisons.

The most difficult part of starting such a college program is finding a college that will grant the degrees.

19. wturnertsu - December 02, 2010 at 10:45 am

It use to be fascinating how a certain segment of society would cease upon the most horrendous crimes committed by a minority of brutes justifiably incarcerated in the nation's prison and use the crimes of that minority to paint over the vast majority of the imprisoned population whose only offense was their poverty and illiteracy. One member of the former segment, on advice of his handlers, rode Willie Horton ads all the way into the White House and the Highest Office in the land!

This is The Chronicle and for someone to attempt to distort or divert attention away from the germane message of the article is insulting, or should be, to persons who read and post here. It is a given that much precaution must be taken in handling any person caged behind bars, no more the length of time confined. It is also a given, the availability or absence of opportunities for the incarcerated to receive education has little, if any, influence on whether or not Parole Boards will grant release, if other factors, such as degree of rehabilitaion required and appropriate remorse of the inmate is demonstrated.

Factually, most prisoners are released, at some point. It is to society's benefit to receive back among us a person more educated and literate, upon release, than he or she was on the day that she or he was imprisoned. In short, Oscars of the world, we should do all that we can to help educate the imprisoned population, because it would benefit soceity as much, if not moreso than it does the soon, or eventually, to be released fellow caged-humanbeings.

20. anova - December 09, 2010 at 09:10 am

Wow, I should have gone to jail. $5,000 per student per year sounds like a great deal to me!

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.