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From Ball and Chain to Cap and Gown: Getting a B.A. Behind Bars

July 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
What college is tougher to get into than Harvard, Princeton or Yale? Bard College. Not the campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., but the one behind bars in five Empire State prisons. The privately funded Bard Prison Initiative is putting convicts through a rigorous B.A. program that would challenge even the smartest Ivy Leaguers.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now a story about educating students and preparing them for the world of work in a tough economy. The unusual twist here: This program operates behind bars.

College-level programs were once common in prisons. That changed in the 1990s, when felons became ineligible for financial aid known as Pell Grants.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman focuses tonight on how one program is tackling that challenge now. It’s part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

MAN: Byron Antonio Ortiz Baten.


PAUL SOLMAN: The graduation ceremony in Upstate New York went off with the usual pomp this spring.

MAN: I now grant you the degree, with all the rights and responsibilities there unto appertaining. Congratulations, gentlemen.


PAUL SOLMAN: But the circumstances? Out of the box. The 43 degrees granted that day were from Bard, an elite liberal arts college in the nearby scenic Hudson Valley. This rite of passage, however, took place in a maximum-security prison, the grads convicted felons who for now can only hang their diplomas in their cells.

With 2.3 million prisoners, one in 100 adults, the U.S. locks up the most people anywhere in the world, and at the world’s highest rate. Repressive China comes in a distant second, with 1.6 million inmates, closer to one in 1,000.

U.S. imprisonment has soared sevenfold since the late ’70s, when the tough-on-crime movement began — with good reason, many would argue. Consider Anthony Cardenales, a poster child for the drug and gun-crazed culture of the South Bronx.

ANTHONY CARDENALES, Bard Prison Initiative: What we would do was rob the drug dealers. So the drug dealers, they do all the work. And then we come by and take the money at the end of the day, which was the easier, but very intense and extremely dangerous job.

PAUL SOLMAN: How do you stick up drug dealers?

ANTHONY CARDENALES: It was who drew first and that determines what happens after that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Who drew first, as in a gunfight?

ANTHONY CARDENALES: Yes. I mean, sometimes, it would turn out to that. But most importantly was who had the drop on who, which was who was able to catch who without their gun. And then I will relieve you of your money and go on my way.

PAUL SOLMAN: But it wasn’t always that simple. And in 1991, during a shoot-out, Cardenales killed a man. While he served time, Bard initiated and helped staff a privately funded B.A. program that Cardenales signed up. Total enrollment is now up to 250.

MIGUEL MUNOZ-LABOY, Columbia University: How is it that I’m going to analyze this in order to have an impact in my logical risk?

PAUL SOLMAN: Bard College is highly selective, admitting only 30 percent of applicants. Bard behind bars is far pickier, with an admission rate rivaling Harvard’s, says the program’s founder, Max Kenner.

MAX KENNER, Bard Prison Initiative: We get the best 15 students at each place, each year. And, typically, you have roughly 10 applicants per spot.

PAUL SOLMAN: Forget SATs or GPAs. Some of these guys never even started high school, much less finished it. The key criterion for admission, how badly do they want it, determined by an essay and interview.

MAX KENNER: Those students that are most intellectually ambitious, that are most curious are so often the same people as children who dropped out of conventional school the youngest.

MIGUEL MUNOZ-LABOY: How many people will you do in your survey?

MAN: I would think about what would be a representative number. If it was a large study, I would need maybe one percent of the population maybe. I don’t know. I will have to figure that out.

PAUL SOLMAN: The courses within these walls are nearly identical to those without.

MIGUEL MUNOZ-LABOY: So, what is the decision-making process?

PAUL SOLMAN: Professor Miguel Munoz-Laboy teaches the same class to these inmates at Woodbourne Correctional Facility that he teaches to grad students at Columbia University School of Public Health. Yes, he acknowledges there is a difference. The students at Woodbourne are better.

MIGUEL MUNOZ-LABOY: It’s incredible. I have never had a student who reads everything, every page that I assign. And they do.

MAN: How far in do we go on that issue?

MIGUEL MUNOZ-LABOY: For example, we had — in a number of classes, a student would say, the footnote on page 43 says this.

I never read that footnote.


MIGUEL MUNOZ-LABOY: So, there’s so many stories like that, where you are — you simply don’t know the answer because they push you to become a better teacher.

PAUL SOLMAN: Admittedly, this is a captive audience, with study periods that last all day. But they sure do use them.

Michael Flournoy, serving 17 to 35 for assault, just got a B.A. in history.

MICHAEL FLOURNOY, inmate: And in my senior project, I dealt with narrative, narrative construction, how history is created. And in dealing with that, I had to interrogate the civil rights movement juxtaposed against the American revolution.

PAUL SOLMAN: Former drug dealer Brandon Irons is a computer science major, interested in open source.

BRANDON IRONS, inmate: I’m doing object-oriented programming. Linux is the new system that they brought in, operating system, and Python is the language. I do Java on my own time through net beeps.

PAUL SOLMAN: And what do you hope to do when you get out?

BRANDON IRONS: Pursue my — pursue — right now, I build minor programs. I would like to eventually build massive programs that can be available to a lot of different people at one time.

PAUL SOLMAN: Salih Israil serving 20 to 40 years for robbery and assault, got his bachelor’s in comp lit in 2009, a master’s last year. He reads the German philosopher Walter Benjamin?

SALIH ISRAIL, inmate: Yes. Yes. Actually, I used him for an essay that I wrote.

PAUL SOLMAN: An essay on how French poet Aime Cesaire adapted Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

“Far from the degenerative process, the adaptive process allows the original to be experienced in different cultural and historical times without effecting a change in the original, for an adaptation exists apart from the original.”

Now, this…


PAUL SOLMAN: This sounds like you’re becoming one of those impenetrable academics. Are you shooting to become a member of a social criticism department or something?

SALIH ISRAIL: Well, not so much a criticism department. However, I do — I would like to have a body of work out there one day that somehow was taken seriously. And that requires that I speak the way people who write seriously write.

PAUL SOLMAN: But even if Israil doesn’t end up as a tenured deconstructionist, he seems a lot more broadly marketable than most of his peers.

Bard practices what so many academics preach: not vocational, but liberal education, like Max Kenner got at Bard.

MAX KENNER: Our belief is that a liberal education prepares people to find work wherever the jobs may be. You give them job training for job X, job X disappears, you have nothing. You give someone the opportunity to think critically and to understand the context in which they’re looking for work, they go where the jobs are to be found.

PAUL SOLMAN: Indeed, even in today’s job market, a B.A. seems to pay, ex-con or no. Unemployment is just 4.4 percent for those over 25 with B.A.s, double that for those with some college or a two-year’s associate degree, for a high school grads, 10 percent, and for high school dropouts, 14.3.

A special ed student all his life, Kyle Alston didn’t learn to read or write until prison. He got an associate’s degree from Bard and, though he’s up for parole next year, intends to stay to get his B.A.

KYLE ALSTON, inmate: This is my third time being incarcerated. And each time that I was incarcerated before in the past, I was always looking for the easy way out, some program that I could try to get out of prison so that I could just go back and hang around the same neighborhood and do the same things that I did that led me here this time. This time, I’m committed to bettering myself and to educating myself.

PAUL SOLMAN: Would you choose to stay here if it meant that you would get your degree?

KYLE ALSTON: Yes, sir.

PAUL SOLMAN: Even if you could get out of prison?

KYLE ALSTON: Yes, sir.

PAUL SOLMAN: Carlos Rosado, sentenced to 16 years for robbery and assault, majored in environmental studies at Woodbourne. He has gotten out, is now gainfully employed as a recycling engineer, here showing one of his former Bard professors around.

We separate the toner, the circuitry, the plastic.

PAUL SOLMAN: Rosado is one of 158 grads now just trickling out of prison. But so far, almost everyone on the outside has a job, suggesting a prison B.A. can be the ticket.

CARLOS ROSADO, Bard Prison Initiative: But it begins with two things. It begins with the person identifying that they need or they want to excel, and you need an opportunity to excel.

PAUL SOLMAN: Bard behind bars promotes both, says Rosado, nurturing rationality to cope with the often counterproductive impulses of human nature.

CARLOS ROSADO: Plato, Socrates, Emerson, these are all discussions about understanding your personhood and understanding impulse and rationality in a way by which to really maximize your steps and your decisions, your mind, and really — really to bring those things into alignment. Why? Because those things never disappear. Rationality never trumps impulse, and impulse never dominates rationality.

PAUL SOLMAN: What the Bard prison program tries to do, redirect the impulses that put these men away while maximizing the rationality they will need when they get out.

One such graduate is Anthony Cardenales, who has come back to speak to those still working on their degrees and their sentences.

ANTHONY CARDENALES: Bard is here for a reason.

PAUL SOLMAN: But can Bard actually place a self-described stick-up artist, who did years in here for homicide, in a meaningful, well-paying job?

ANTHONY CARDENALES: I don’t care what state the economy is in. If one person is successful, then so can I be successful.

PAUL SOLMAN: In other words, is that pep talk poppycock? Or are Bard grads getting real jobs?

ANTHONY CARDENALES: Is it difficult? Yes. Is it impossible? Absolutely not.

PAUL SOLMAN: You can judge for yourself in the next installment of this story.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we will have the second part of Paul’s report on tomorrow night’s NewsHour.