Prison Education Initiative to Award Associate of Art Degree
Bennington College has received accreditation from the New England Commissions of Higher Education (NECHE) to award a Bennington College Associate of Art degree to incarcerated students through its Prison Education Initiative (PEI).
Now in its fifth year, PEI brings Bennington College faculty to Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security men’s prison in Comstock, NY, to provide a quality liberal arts education to incarcerated students.
PEI will graduate its first class of Associate of Arts candidates in a Commencement ceremony that will take place at Great Meadow on June 13, 2020.
“This Commencement ceremony will be an important moment for us, celebrating the hard work and academic achievement of our graduates and the success of the program,” said Annabel Davis-Goff, Director and Co-Founder of PEI. “We are proud of our graduates and grateful for the partnership between the College, the Department of Corrections, and the administration of Great Meadow that makes it possible to offer the same high-quality education at Great Meadow that is offered to students on Bennington’s campus.”
PEI currently enrolls 36 students in credit-bearing courses with an additional 10 enrolled in an introductory college preparatory course. Since PEI’s inception in 2015, more than 70 incarcerated students have taken credit-bearing courses in the humanities, math, and computer science.
One in every seven people, and one in five African Americans, currently in prison are serving a life or virtual life sentence. In New York State, it is one in five, according to the Washington, DC-based The Sentencing Project. In maximum-security facilities such as Great Meadow, this proportion is even higher.
Those who are awarded degrees while in prison and are later released have a reduced rate of return to prison (recidivism) and higher rate of employment. For those PEI students who do not re-enter society, this academic experience can have a positive impact on both their own quality of life and that of their family members.
“The Prison Education Initiative embodies many of the core values on which Bennington was founded,” said Isabel Roche, Interim President of Bennington College. “We believe in the unique ability of higher education to enlighten and empower, and in our responsibility to help foster a more just and equitable world.”
PEI’s education-first model encourages students to exercise meaningful agency in their pursuit of education. Students develop personal educational aspirations and contribute toward the collective academic community, and their participation in higher education programs changes the culture of the prison, making it a safer place for both incarcerated students and staff.
As a member of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison at Bard College, PEI’s presence at Great Meadow provides education to underserved upstate students farther north than any other consortium member. In 2016, PEI was also selected as one of the original sites for the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative.