Prison Education Initiative
The Prison Education Initiative (PEI) brings Bennington College faculty to Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security men's prison in Comstock, New York. The mission of PEI is to provide a quality liberal arts college education to incarcerated students, enabling them to work toward an academic degree to better their chances at further educational opportunities and employment after their release.
I found the class both enjoyable and illuminating and have left it with a deeper appreciation of democracy, the concept of popular rule, and for political theory itself...Given the opportunity to be treated as a person and to be challenged has helped me to feel as I still have some value as a human being." – PEI student
In April 2014, a panel of educators convened at Bennington to exchange ideas and practical advice around the topic of what liberal arts colleges can contribute to higher education in prisons, and what that contribution can mean for both the incarcerated and for the participating colleges. This convening led to the creation of the Prison Education Initiative (PEI) at Bennington College, which launched in fall 2015 at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York.
This program responds to the urgent need for incarceration reform in this country. The 1994 Crime Bill withdrew all financial support for incarcerated students, yet the benefits of such education are clear: higher education in prison reduces the likelihood of recidivism and improves the ability of those released to find employment. Every dollar spent on adult college education programs saves the taxpayer between $4 and $5. Beyond recidivism, PEI is investing in additional metrics to better understand the broad impact of college education on prison communities.
To date, the program has offered credited courses to over 50 students in the subjects of literature, social research, political theory, Latin, history of thought, social psychology, math, and U.S. history, as well as tutorial sessions and a college preparatory course to increase every student's chance of success in the program.
The Prison Education Initiative (PEI) provides classroom-based courses taught by Bennington College faculty at Great Meadow Correctional Facility. Following the Bennington seminar model, these classes consist entirely of lecture, instruction, in-class discussion, and regular assessment of student progress. The basic curriculum for all PEI students includes courses in philosophy, literature, math, history, and the social sciences. Students develop collegiate-level skills that include the ability to convey complex ideas in both oral and written work, reading and comprehension of sophisticated texts, basic math skills, scientific and quantitative reasoning, and information literacy. Starting in fall 2019, PEI will offer courses in computer science and coding to prepare those students who may reenter society for successful careers in high-demand occupations from which they are not legally barred, such as computer programming and analysis, software engineering, information technology, and digital design.
PEI students are provided free tuition for their Bennington College education, and are given all books and materials needed for courses free of charge. Bennington College participates in the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, and all PEI students eligible for Pell grants will be requested to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as part of their participation in the program.
To increase the opportunity for student success, PEI students will be enrolled in one or two classes in their first term, and two or more classes in the following terms. Once students are enrolled in PEI, this will be considered their full-time assignment at Great Meadow, and they will be paid at the pay levels set accordingly by DOCCS as a full-time program/work assignment. This placement will not impact any necessary release-oriented programmatic needs assignments. Students will also attend two sessions of study hall weekly, providing an opportunity for quiet study time, access to the PEI library, and discussion with classmates on assignments.
PEI runs year-round: the fall term begins in July and ends in December; the spring term begins in January and ends in June. Classes meet weekly for a 16-week period, and each course is staggered throughout the full six-month term (e.g. one course may begin in July and end in October; another course may begin in September and end in December). Over a three to five year time frame, each student will complete 60 semester credit hours as required for an associate’s degree. Though students will be required to complete at least one-fourth of their credits through Bennington College to earn a Bennington associate’s degree, Bennington accepts transfers credits for PEI students from other regionally accredited institutions of higher education, using the same criteria and standards established for Bennington’s on-campus students. In the event that a student transfers to another facility, PEI will communicate with the college-in-prison program (if one exists) at that facility and will help transfer credits.
Applications for PEI are accepted on an ongoing basis. A committee of PEI faculty and staff will review all applications twice yearly (June and December) and interview promising candidates. Prospective students that are called in for interviews are also given math evaluations at that time so PEI staff can assess their level of proficiency to register accepted students into math classes appropriate to their level.
Evaluations are based on content (comprehension of text, clarity of thought, choice of approach, originality of ideas) and the mechanics of writing (syntax, sentence structure, punctuation, word choice). A committee of PEI faculty and staff will review all applications and interview promising candidates. Prospective students that are called in for interviews are also given math evaluations at that time so PEI staff can assess their level of proficiency to register accepted students into math classes appropriate to their level.
Upon acceptance into the PEI program, most students will be required to take a college preparatory course before joining credit-bearing courses. Based on the initial assessment of writing and comprehension abilities demonstrated during both the review of application materials and the application interview, this requirement may be waived for some students; these students will begin taking credit-bearing courses immediately.
In addition to feedback during the term, student work at Bennington is evaluated through written reports by faculty members submitted to the Dean’s Office at the end of each term. Along with narrative evaluations, students will receive grades (A, B, C, D, F). The Final Evaluation appraises the student’s work for the term and is part of the student’s permanent transcript. The Final Evaluation includes a judgment of Pass (comparable to A+–C-), Marginal Pass (comparable to a D+-D-), and Fail. No credits are given for classes not passed.
Faculty may also document an academic concern with an Academic Progress Concern Form by the middle of the term. Academic Progress Concern Forms are part of a student’s internal record, but do not appear as part of the student’s transcript. Students who choose to withdraw from the course after receiving a Concern Form may be placed in the next College Preparatory course offered by Bennington College at Great Meadow at the discretion of the instructor and in conversation with the student.
As stipulated by federal guidelines, students must pass 67% of the credits they attempt in order to stay enrolled in the Prison Education Initiative (please note that withdrawing from a course counts toward credits attempted but not earned, thus negatively affecting this percentage). Students must also maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.0 at all time. Students who are dismissed based on poor academic performance will have the opportunity to appeal the dismissal in a one-page letter addressed to the assistant director of PEI. PEI’s executive committee (made up of the director, assistant director, and two faculty members) will evaluate each appeal on an individual basis and will send a formal written response to the student.
Expectations of Students
Classes for which students are enrolled will be included on their program cards, as will be a twice-weekly study hall. Being enrolled in PEI means being available for college-related callouts. Class attendance is mandatory. This also means staying in class for the entire session. Each student is responsible for whatever he misses while out of the room.
Should a student be taken out of class or is unable to attend class due to circumstances outside his control (court dates, medical reasons, etc.), he may be given the opportunity to make up the missed work at the discretion of the teacher. Should he not be able to make up the missed work, he will receive an Incomplete for the course and will not receive course credit.
PEI has a zero-tolerance policy for any students engaging in behavior that is disruptive to the processes or operations of the class, interferes with the instructor’s ability to teach, or interferes with other students’ ability to participate in the class. Disruptive students will be dismissed from the class and receive no credit for their work in the class.
This policy also applies to study hall: any student who is disrupting study hall or using the time for activities not pertinent to course assignments will be dismissed from the class or program.
Once enrolled, students must agree to a transfer hold until the completion of courses in which they are enrolled each semester (except when a hold cannot not be honored for security or reduction-of-security reasons).
Plagiarism and Academic Dishonesty
Plagiarism and all kinds of academic and artistic dishonesty are contrary to the educational philosophy and aims of Bennington College and are absolutely prohibited. Plagiarism is submitting the work of others as one’s own, whether intentionally or not, and includes failure to acknowledge sources. Proper acknowledgment of sources is the basis of academic honesty. Such sources include words, ideas, data, and images from books, articles, and so on. Sources of images must be noted in the same way that textual material is cited, according to discipline standards. Academic dishonesty also includes the submission of the same work for different classes without substantial revision and prior permission from the faculty. Academic dishonesty may also include projects or assignments done collaboratively but not approved in advance by faculty as collaborative work.
If plagiarism or other academic dishonesty is discovered, consequences will be determined by the instructor and a PEI committee; these consequences may include failure in the course or being dismissed from the program.
A member of the PEI faculty will hold office hours on occasion throughout the term, allowing students access to meet individually to ask questions and discuss their academic progress. Please note that students are not permitted to contact any of their teachers outside of class time, either directly or through another person. Should a student need to communicate with the PEI program, he can write to:
Prison Education Initiative
One College Drive
Bennington, VT 05201
When borrowing a book from the PEI classroom library, students must sign out the book in the provided ledger.
Every student will receive all the texts required for each course. At the end of each term, students have the option to keep their books or to return them to the classroom, where they may borrow them at any point in the future while participating in PEI. Students will be required to return some hardcover textbooks at the conclusion of a course.
PEI is a member of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison at Bard College, and is made possible through collaboration with the Incarceration in America initiative through CAPA, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, and Great Meadow Correctional Facility. The program is funded by Bennington College, the Harry J. Brown Jr. Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education (through the Second Chance Pell program), and other private donors.
April 6, 2018 – Computer Science and Prison Reform
June 19, 2017 – The Future of Higher Education in Prison
August 28, 2016 – Great Meadow Program is a Model for Inmate Education
August 21, 2016 – Books Behind Bars: Great Meadow Inmates See School as Second Chance
December 4, 2015 – Bennington Gears up for its Prison Education Initiative
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Annabel Davis-Goff and David Bond