The National Conversation

Books Behind Bars

Second Chance Pell Grants at Bennington by Jeanne Bonner MFA '16

Books Behind Bars img

For certain classes faculty member Annabel Davis-Goff teaches, she drives 50 miles from campus, arrives an hour early, goes through a metal detector, submits her belongings for inspection, and is escorted to her classroom. These are the classes she teaches at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, and the home of Bennington’s nascent prison education initiative launched in 2015.

    “It’s like teaching every other course,” she says. Except for in the ways that it is not. “The difference is when you have spent two hours talking about Joseph Conrad among courteous, thoughtful, mature students …the conversations are of a very high, interesting level, then the class ends and you are aware your students are going to be escorted by a guard and locked up in their cells.”

    The courses are part of a new wave of prison education initiatives. Bennington was one 67 colleges chosen by the U.S. Department of Education last year to participate in a new pilot rollout of Pell grants for prisoners, Second Chance Pell Grants, which drew well over 200 applications from colleges and universities throughout the country. The grants were discontinued under the 1994 federal crime bill and are now being tested again thanks to mounting evidence that proves education makes a difference.    

    The evidence comes from years of research by think tanks such as The Rand Corporation. In their 30-year study of prison’s education relationship to recidivism rates, researchers found that inmates who participated in any educational program while behind bars were much less likely to reoffend. Successful reintegration was even greater for prisoners taking college courses.

    And that is just one reason Max Kenner, director of Bard’s Prison Education Initiative, is confounded as to why programs like this remain rare. “As exotic as the work we do seems to be, it is actually extraordinarly simple. We provide a Bard education that is the same as any other Bard education, except that it’s provided within the walls of a maximum security prison.”

    Bennington has closely aligned its fledgling program to Bard’s long-established initiative, which Davis-Goff and others consider “the gold standard” of prison education. In October, Bard invited Bennington to be a consortium of partner schools joining Notre Dame, Holy Cross College, and Grinnell College.  The invitation was more than a marker of early success, it was an honor.

    “At the center of what we do as a College is the simple and powerful truth that learning changes us,” Provost and Dean Isabel Roche said. “Bennington’s Prison Education Program, under the remarkable leadership of Annabel Davis-Goff, helps to bring that truth—and the responsibility we have to it—into the world.”  

    Bringing it into the world is not uncomplicated or easy, but that is the business of education, Davis-Goff insists: “to bring education where it is not.”

    Bard and Bennington notwithstanding, prison initiatives have primarily been the province of community colleges. There are some good reasons for this. Community colleges are cheaper and often more centrally located. And it’s not easy for four-year colleges to provide the same education—security concerns, for example, make it difficult to teach science courses, particularly those with labs. Indeed, for many of these reasons colleges selected for the Second Chance Pell grants are community colleges—Cornell, in some ways, is one of them.

    In Cornell’s case, its faculty members teach in the program but students receive a degree from Cayuga Community College instead. Rob Scott, the director of the Cornell Prison Education Initiative, says, nonetheless, nothing is off the table. “We offer the whole curriculum. And the students are outperforming at every turn.”

    While the entirety of the Bennington curriculum is not available to the students (the first classes offering credits were taught this spring) Davis-Goff is working with faculty member David Bond and Dean Roche to develop a core curriculum compatible with Bard’s program. Qualified students will be eligible to apply to BPI to continue earning either an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree.

    But before she plunges into the fine print of credit transfers, degree requirements, and even the overall savings taxpayers are rewarded with when investing in prisoner education, she wants to make it clear that that’s not what motivates her in the end, and it’s certainly not all that motivates her students. They’re in it for the education, not as a means to an end but as the end in and of itself in some cases.

    “Education alters the culture of the prison. It offers intellectual and even spiritual resources to students who are hungry for it,” she says. Her students come to class having discussed among themselves the books and ideas about which they are reading in deep in conversation from the previous class. And that, Davis-Goff says, is why educators like her are drawn—perhaps even called—to the work.

    As political leaders argue the cost-saving benefits, think tanks reinforce the value to a non-violent society, educators on the ground with this work will by and large reinforce it as an educator’s moral imperative.

    “In a supposedly Christian nation, we are more punitive and unforgiving for fellow citizens’ transgressions than we have ever been,” says Kenner with the Bard program.

   Scott, with the Cornell program, adds that we have an obligation to offer more than what the state gives to citizens leaving New York corrections facilities. “Prisoners are released with $40 and bus fare back to the county where the crime was committed—no more, no less.”

    But now, with the support of major foundations, New York State, the Federal government, and a small but growing network of committed colleges, like Bennington, Bard, Cornell, and community colleges, are looking to shift the balance and help incarcerated citizens leave with more than bus fare back to their former lives.