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Computer Science and Prison Reform

Since its launch in 2015, Bennington College’s Prison Education Initiative (PEI), a program of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) founded by faculty members David Bond and Annabel Davis-Goff, has worked to bring liberal arts programming to the maximum-security men’s prison Great Meadow in Comstock, NY.

BPI Graduation

From April 12-14, Computer Science faculty member Andrew Cencini is attending the convening of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, which is hosted at University of Notre Dame and Holy Cross College. Cencini will speak at the second plenary session on “Mission and Post-Graduate Careers: Rethinking Reentry,” as well as discuss teaching Computer Science in prison as part of the convening’s breakout session “Challenging Assumptions About What’s Possible: Innovation In and Outside of the Classroom.”

As a member of Bard College’s Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, PEI also engages in national conversations around the role liberal arts institutions can play in transforming individual lives and the criminal justice system through providing high-quality academic programming and degree-earning opportunities to inmates in America’s prisons.   

When Cencini attended the first Incarceration in America conference CAPA hosted at the College, he met Jed Tucker, who serves as Director of Reentry and Alumni Affairs at Bard Prison Initiative (BPI).

“Jed was experimenting with adding Computer Science curriculum to BPI’s program,” Cencini said. “So I ended up working with them to help develop a Computer Science curriculum that would make sense for their resources and fit into a liberal arts curriculum.”

Through his work with Tucker, Cencini’s involvement with BPI deepened. He now teaches Computer Science at Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, NY, and has served  as an academic advisor and guest lecturer for students at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Woodbourne, NY.

Cencini’s plenary session will be a public conversation between himself and Ornell Caesar, a 2016 alum of BPI’s program.

“I worked with Ornell when he was wearing green on the inside, and now he’s working for a former student of mine, Rohail [Altaf ’17], as a software engineer for NYC Train Sign,” Cencini said.

Out of all the places Cencini has taught, he said prisons have some of the strongest informal learning communities. Among Cencini’s current collaborative projects between BPI and PEI is a National Science Foundation proposal to advance informal STEM learning for students both while they’re inside the correctional system and after they graduate.

Talent doesn’t discriminate on zip code. Going off of the talent, you’d never know whether you were in a Bennington classroom or a PEI or BPI classroom in prison. The engagement, curiosity, and capacity of the students is incredible.

Andrew Cencini

Necessity also breeds invention in these informal learning communities. Cencini has noticed that outside of classroom hours, small groups of students congregate to collaborate and self-teach.

At Woodbourne, he said, a group of men meet in the basement of the facility to work on advanced coding, sometimes for upwards of 12 hours per day. Likewise, the women who study Computer Science at Taconic have expressed interest in developing their own coding community there.

As students transition toward release, the consortium of liberal arts colleges have an affiliation that allows students to transfer credits between programs. After prison, BPI and PEI students are eligible to continue their studies at their respective colleges to complete their associates or bachelors degree.

One of the shared goals of the consortium is to create a network between students and alumni from the prison programs that will help recently graduated students find jobs, continue their education, and re-adjust to life on the outside.   

For his part, Cencini is working to establish this network for Computer Science graduates. In Fall 2018, he also plans to begin implementing Computer Science curriculum in PEI’s Great Meadow program.

Matt Collyer ’21 is assisting Cencini with developing a computer lab setup for Great Meadow. Though prison security can limit classroom flexibility and the range of teaching tools available, Cencini is optimistic about the future of PEI’s Computer Science program.

“When I was in school, we didn’t have internet or laptops in the classroom either,” Cencini said. “But people have been conveying knowledge and teaching each other for thousands of years without equipment. The challenges can be dealt with.”

The challenges do, however, put a lot of miles on Cencini’s car. With Computer Science faculty throughout all levels of education in short supply, Cencini currently splits his time between his traditional courses at Bennington and his course at Taconic : believed to be the first college-credit-bearing CS1 course to be offered in a US women’s prison.

Though he looks forward to expanding PEI’s offerings at Great Meadow, Cencini also recognizes the value in his current work, even when getting to and from sites entails commutes upwards of six hours.

“In some ways, teaching can be missionary work,” Cencini said. “You have to go out, find, and reach populations who have the same talents and abilities as traditional students, and who are totally deserving of and want that education.”

 

By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer