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NSF Grant Awarded to Bring Computer Science to Formerly Incarcerated

A new initiative to bring cutting-edge computer science training to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals in New York and Vermont has been awarded a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant.

Restart expands on the collaboration between Bennington College’s Prison Education Initiative (PEI) and the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) at Bard College to explore news ways of using computer science as a vehicle for economic independence and community engagement for people in or returning home from prison.  

“This is an excellent opportunity for us to help broaden inclusion in computer science to those who have traditionally been underserved, while also learning about what works and what doesn't in bridging STEM education from in-prison to after after-prison settings,” said Bennington faculty member and lead investigator on the grant Andrew Cencini.

Restart builds on the groundbreaking work of the Bard Prison Initiative and Bennington's Prison Education Initiative while forging a new model for computer science education inside and after prison. Cencini has worked with both BPI and PEI to help develop computer science curriculum, advise and teach students, and work with alumni upon release. Cencini's combined academic-industrial background, including work for Microsoft and more recently as co-founder of a successful startup, will help bridge the educational and professional worlds that participants will be navigating.

“There is no community of students in America capable of more, and of whom we typically expect less, than incarcerated women and men,” commented Max Kenner, BPI Executive Director. “The educations we provide in prison can be as broad and ambitious as at any college in the United States. Restart expands on college work that incarcerated Bard students have been doing in computer science and presents an opportunity to further the link between learning in prison and careers after.”

Despite the recent upsurge in technology related jobs, there remains a dearth of computer training for individuals transitioning from prison back to society and even fewer programs that take advantage of time in prison to build real computer science capacity among the incarcerated. Working in New York City and Bennington, Restart will foster learning communities to cultivate the computer skills and the networks needed to thrive in today’s digital economy.

“We at BPI have been in the business of college-level computer science coursework for close to six years. We help students use their time in prison to prepare for successful reentry. We can do dramatically more in computer science and will with Bennington, the NSF, and Restart,” said Jed Tucker, BPI’s Director of Reentry & Alumni Affairs, and who is also principal investigator on the grant.

David Bond, associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, is also a co-investigator on the grant.

The project will have an advisory board composed of Leo Porter, computer science faculty at University of California San Diego; Tom O'Connell, computer science department chair at Skidmore College; and Rebecca Thomas, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Earlham College.

The Bennington College Prison Education Initiative (PEI) offers credit-bearing Bennington College courses at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Comstock, New York. Since its inception in 2015, PEI has offered college courses in literature, social science research, mathematics, history, and social psychology to over 50 students. During this academic year, PEI will incorporate computer science and Latin into the curriculum. 

The Bard Prison Initiative was founded in 1999 by undergraduates at Bard College in response to the decimation of college-in-prison nationwide. After gaining access to the New York State prison system and securing limited funding, Bard College launched BPI as a pilot program with 16 students in 2001. Since then, the program has grown annually and dramatically. Its first associate degrees were issued in 2005 and the first bachelor’s degrees in 2008. Today, the BPI college is spread across six interconnected prisons in New York State. It enrolls more than 300 students and organizes a host of extracurricular activities essential to the breadth of college life and inquiry. Since 2001, BPI has issued roughly 50,000 credits and 450 degrees; it offers more than 165 courses per academic year and engages an extraordinary range of college faculty. Extrapolating from the successful establishment of the college, BPI has expanded in multiple directions. First, it is the home of a national Consortium that cultivates, supports, and establishes college-in-prison programs in partnership with colleges and universities across the country. Second, its office of Reentry & Alumni Affairs works with formerly incarcerated Bard students as they pursue robust civic and professional lives after release. Most recently, BPI established the Bard Microcollege to bring full-scholarship, academically rigorous liberal arts college to isolated communities outside of prison. In all its work, BPI builds alliances to rethink access, reduce costs, and redress inequities in higher education.