Bennington College celebrates first graduating class from the Prison Education Initiative
On February 4, 2023, Bennington College's Prison Education Initiative (PEI) held its first college graduation inside Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, NY.
It was a day of firsts. It was the first college graduation held inside Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, NY. It was the first Bennington College degrees conferred on inmates enrolled in the Prison Education Initiative. And after years of hard work, it was the first chance for PEI graduates to celebrate their remarkable academic achievements with friends and family.
“Today, we celebrated the commitment, the hard work, and the intellectual achievements of our students that we see every time we enter a classroom,” said PEI Director Annabel Davis-Goff.
On a cold February afternoon, ten men put on the blue gowns of Bennington College and walked across the gym floor to a standing ovation from PEI faculty, family members, and prison staff to receive their Associates of Arts degrees from Provost Maurice Hall.
“This event is the culmination of years of hard work by very dedicated Bennington faculty and this event represents Bennington at its best - seeking to make the world more just,” said Bennington College Provost Maurice Hall.
Many of this year’s graduating class were part of the first course PEI offered at Great Meadow in the Fall of 2015. Now in its eighth year, PEI has offered college courses in Computer Science, History, Literature, Math, and Social Science to over 100 students. With a rigorous admissions process and seminars taught with the same content and exacting standards as on the main campus, PEI has brought the transformative Bennington College education model into a maximum-security prison.
“We are proud of the extraordinary work and dedication of these Bennington College graduates and thrilled to celebrate their accomplishments,” said Bennington College President Laura Walker.
Each member of this year’s graduating class successfully researched and defended an academic thesis, on topics as wide-ranging as the relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr to our fractured present, the emancipatory power of reading in prison, a critical review of AI’s reach into healthcare, an updated definition and appraisal of the regional novel, the curious place of race and racism in Supreme Court decisions, and the impossibility of living on the minimum wage today.
For many, college graduation was not so much a launchpad for new careers as it was a new confidence carried within. As the student speaker noted, PEI’s first graduating class will end this monumental day as they have ended so many previous days, months, and years before: locked up. But they are finding their voices, forging the community that comes from serious inquiry, and beginning to craft a new understanding of the world at hand. For many, graduation is one step in the lifelong vocation of learning.
“I truly don’t know how lost I would be right now without the Bennington program to challenge me and help push me to better myself. I have now reached a point of full understanding of how important education is to my past, my present, and my future,” said one of the PEI graduates. Another said, “It is my very firm belief that the very best form of rehabilitation, which in prison, is participating in college programs like the one generously administered by Bennington College.”
Providing pathways for graduates to continue their studies is becoming a core part of PEI’s work. With the support of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), PEI is building a new national model for providing educational opportunities for those 200,000 men and women serving a life sentence in American prisons today. On this front, PEI is gathering the support necessary to launch an MFA in writing at Great Meadow Correctional Facility next year.