The number of people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons is at an all-time high. Nearly 162,000 people are serving a life sentence—one of every nine people in prison. An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences of 50 years or more. Incorporating this category of life sentence, the total population serving a life or virtual life sentence reached 206,268 in 2016. This represents 13.9 percent of the prison population, or one of every seven people behind bars… people of color comprise 65.6 percent of those serving de facto life sentences. African Americans comprise just over half of the virtual life-sentenced population (51.9%) and another 11.7 percent are Latino." – Still Life, The Sentencing Project
In New York State, as a result of reform that has reduced the population of state prisons by approximately 20%, one in five incarcerated people is serving a sentence of life or virtual life. At Great Meadow Correctional Facility, the maximum-security prison where PEI offers Bennington College humanities courses, a conservative estimate might put that number at one in four.
PEI has been in Great Meadow for eight years and, since we do not put an academic hold on our students, we have a high level of turnover. Many of our students transfer to lower security facilities or to prisons closer to their families. But in addition to the new students we enroll twice a year, a nucleus of students (approximately a third of our student body) have been with us for most or all of those eight years. Those students who have earned their associate’s degree continue their education taking the more advanced courses we have added to the curriculum.
It is a home, a place to be intellectual in a world that does not place much value on such things. An environment conducive to discussion and writing without fear of being ridiculed. A place to grow beyond the limited mentality that prison breeds, encourages, and expresses verbally and physically every day." – PEI student, 2022
PEI has held two convenings and some less formal workshops to understand more fully what continuing education might look like for those serving very long, or even life, sentences. Working with college-in-prison providers from across the nation, we have exchanged ideas, developed advanced course offerings, library holdings, and a lecture series, better to support our students.
Bennington College has a renowned MFA program in Literature and Writing and PEI is currently exploring ways of bringing it into Great Meadow, in addition to working with PEN’s Prison Writing Program.
October 21-22, 2022 | Continuing Education in Prisons, part II
October 1-2, 2021 | Continuing Education in Prisons