Executive Director Max Kenner & Program Graduate George Chochos

The executive director and program graduate join us to discuss the acclaimed Bard College prison education initiative.

Max Kenner is the founder and Executive Director of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) a student volunteer organization that Kenner created when he was an undergraduate at Bard College in 1999. After gaining the support of the College and cooperation of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, Kenner led the expansion of BPI from a pilot program with 15 students to a nationally recognized education initiative enrolling nearly 300 students within six campuses in correctional facilities throughout New York State. Kenner has become a leading advocate for the national restoration of college-in-prison and frequently speaks publicly in a wide variety of forums about the BPI model in education and criminal justice policy.

George Chochos is a 2nd-year graduate student at Yale Divinity School and associate minister of Union Missionary Baptist Church in Albany, NY. George spent 11 1/2 years in New York State's prison system where he earned bachelor degrees from Bard College and Thomas Edison State College and holds a master's from New York Theological Seminary, which is the nation's only professional master's degree program in a correctional institution offered at the Sing Sing Prison. Upon release in 2011, George has served as chaplain and assistant director of operations at the Capital City Rescue Mission, served on the board of Club Zoe, Inc. (a nonprofit offering programs for youth in the most impoverished section of Albany, NY), mentored at-risk youth in three programs, and collaborated with Albany's District Attorney David Soares on youth program development.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Last year, the Bard Prison Initiative made headlines when members of their debate team defeated Harvard College. Tonight, a conversation with Bard Prison Initiative founder and executive director, Max Kenner, and alumnus, George Chochos.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Max Kenner and George Chochos coming up right now.

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Tavis: The Bard Prison Initiative is a program of Bard College that creates an opportunity for incarcerated men and women to earn a college degree while they’re serving their sentences. Last year, the program made headlines when their debate team defeated the prestigious Harvard College team.

Tonight, I’m joined by founder and executive director, Max Kenner, along with alumnus, George Chochos, who earned two degrees while serving a 14-year sentence and he is currently a student at the Yale Divinity School. You’re doing big things, George. Good to have you both on the program.

Max Kenner: Thanks for having us.

Tavis: Max, tell me about this program, how this thing came into existence.

Kenner: Sure. Well, we’ve been in this business for about 15 years now and I was an undergraduate at Bard College in the late 1990s and, you know, wasn’t alone in having a recognition.

But it’s now much more commonplace that, over the course of, say, my lifetime, over the course of a generation, we as a society had dedicated more resources and more energy and more money to institutions of punishment than we had to institutions of education.

And I thought maybe, rather than just looking towards elected officials and the public sector, that educators could take a lead in trying to solve those problems rather than taking a back seat.

Tavis: So it’s one thing to have that recognition. It’s another thing, then, for this program to come into existence. So make the transition for me.

Kenner: Sure. So the first thing to know is that, for a generation, college opportunity was in virtually every state and federal prison across the United States, and it did more to do anything positive at lower cost than anything else we know of in criminal justice. Reduce recidivism, reduce violence, make a person more likely to be in contact with their family, be a better parent, all these things, and at very low cost.

And those programs were eliminated overnight with the Crime Bill of 1994. So in 1999, we were in a moment where college had been everywhere and that sense of optimism and hope for the future was built in to the system of criminal punishment that we had and had been removed completely.

So as an undergraduate, I went to Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, and said, “Why don’t we do this? It’s a way that we can address one of the really pressing social issues of our time, how we deal with prisons and criminal punishment and it’s right in the center of the mission of the college.

We’re not doing something different. In fact, the essence of what we do at BPI is treat incarcerated students exactly the same. Same curriculum, same standards, same breadth of study as we have for students on campus who come to college from all over the world.”

Tavis: Do you recall what was happening or what does your memory bring up, what does your research bring up to mind about what was happening in the country in ’94 that would allow us to pass a crime bill that would wipe out an educational program in prisons that was doing the kind of good work that you said it was doing?

Because in ’94, if my memory serves me correctly, that was in the Clinton era. So here we are now in a presidential campaign where these issues of mass incarceration are back on the docket, but you’re telling me that, during the Clinton era, we wiped out a program that was educating prisoners?

Kenner: Yeah, sure.

Tavis: What was happening in the country, as you recall, that allowed a bill like that to pass?

Kenner: Well, I think that the elimination of the education programs, the elimination of college programs, was the very peak of the vindictive tough on crime frenzy, right? You know, as a colleague of mine put it once, not being tough on crime, but being tough on criminals.

So being very shortsighted in how we think of who people who go to prison are, who they are when the come back, and what our public institutions are meant to do. So where the country was, I think, we were in a moment that–and we weren’t just cynical about people we were sending to prison.

Remember, all the money that we invested in prisons, Tavis, was being taken from systems of education. We talked about high schools. We were talking at that time about metal detectors and bubble tests, and the war on teachers, this sort of thing.

So when we talked about young people across the board–and, obviously, when it comes to this issue, we’re not talking about just any young people. We’re talking about overwhelmingly boys and young men of color from specific geographical places, by the way.

But that kind of cynicism pervaded the whole system and there was a real, I think, resentment of the idea that the people who we wanted to consider in the most simple, most limited ways, person X, person Y, is a criminal. Leave it at that. And there was resentment against the idea that those individuals could be more than that.

Tavis: I’m going to bring George into this in just a second. But before I do that, it seems to me–I give great credit to you and to the college for agreeing to take this project on. But it seems to me that one of the things you all had to get past in creating this program was this notion that prisons don’t rehabilitate people.

I mean, clearly what we’re going to talk about with George in a second is that nothing can be further from the truth if we approach it in the right way. But tell me what you’ve learned over the years about the capacity that we have inside of our prisons to in fact rehabilitate people if we go about it the right way.

Kenner: Well, look, the prisons have become one of the central institutions in American life, whether we like it or not.

Tavis: Public and private now.

Kenner: Public and private, but we shouldn’t let the public sector off the hook, right?

Tavis: Sure, sure, sure.

Kenner: You know, the people who are in prison, you know, not only are overwhelmingly people of color, but they come from small geographically concentrated places. So in those places, that net is cast extremely wide and you get from many communities many of the brightest and most ambitious young men who become incarcerated.

So when those guys who very often drop out of school at age 14 or sometimes 12 or nine years old and then are incarcerated and, for the first time in their lives, find themselves in the classroom where the work is inspiring, the teacher is fantastic, and they’re treated with a sense of sort of dignity and aspiration for their future, the results are radically different than any social scientist will ever say it could be.

Tavis: Enter George into this conversation. I don’t want to color this question too much. Let me just start by giving you time to tell me about your back story. Max said something nicely, I think, your entrée because he’s talking to me about boys who get in trouble when they’re young, etc., etc. So just take a minute and tell me about your back story and how you wound up in trouble in the first place.

George Chochos: Well, I think growing up, I was like most kids. I didn’t see myself going to prison. I mean, I was an ambitious kid…

Tavis: Growing up where?

Chochos: Growing up in Albany, New York. I think somewhere in my mid-teen years, I made a decision to start engaging in some activities that were not beneficial to myself and to my community. So at 18 years old, that was the first time I was arrested.

Actually at 20 was the first time I actually went to the County Jail. In actually 1995, my brother took his life. I found him in the back yard of our home. I was already going down a not so good path and that kind of just accelerated the decline inside of my life.

So from 1995 to 2000, I was in and out of jail for drugs, battling cocaine addiction, until it came to a head where I committed five bank robberies. And in 2000, I was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Tavis: You were in prison where?

Chochos: I was in prison in New York. I started off in Rensselaer County. From there I went to Downstate which is a reception facility. And from there, I found myself in the infamous Sing Sing Prison. At the time, I realized that I wanted to change my life. I didn’t know how that was going to happen. I kind of understood like what Max just said, that higher education was not a possibility at the time in 2000.

However, I did walk into the wrong section of the chapel building in Sing Sing and I realized it was one program, a masters program, offered by New York Theological Seminary. And here I was with not even four transferable credits to my name and I’d never thought I could get a masters degree.

From Sing Sing, I was sent to Clinton which was in the news for reasons where some people had escaped recently. From there, I was sent to Eastern and that’s where I first heard about the Bart Prison Initiative.

And there was something about the men that were inside of it that kind of gave us hope that there was something that we could do with our lives and it was a very rigorous process. I believe there were almost 72,000 people in prison in New York State in that year. Bard accepted 15 in 2004…

Tavis: 15 people [laugh]?

Chochos: 15 people into the program.

Tavis: And you were one of the 15.

Chochos: I was very fortunate and I’m always haunted by that. There were so many there that I would consider so much smarter than myself that, if just given the opportunity, I always wonder what they could do with their lives.

Tavis: I’m going to come back to you in just a second. Why such a small number initially?

Kenner: Well, 15 in that one particular institution, not actually 72,000 That’s not accurate.

Tavis: Yes, yes.

Kenner: Look, it’s…

Tavis: It’s still a small number, though, for a prison, 15.

Kenner: 15 per year, per place. At Eastern where George started with us, there are roughly 800 or 900 men and today roughly 120 of them are with the college.

Tavis: The numbers have gotten better, though, yeah.

Kenner: The numbers have gotten better.

Tavis: Okay.

Kenner: You know, we started small for a reason, Tavis, which is to say the thing that was most important at the outset was that we know when everyone finishes this degree, AA or Bachelors Degree, that it is of precisely the same quality, same measure, same rigor, as any Bard degree given to any conventional student on campus coming from the most elite high schools in New York, Los Angeles, across the world, right?

Because our students coming home from prison, we know the challenges they’re going to face and we know the prejudice they’ll face. So we want to be sure before we go to scale, so to speak, that we know what we’re doing.

Tavis: I have some good friends who went to Bard. I guess, a couple of young people I know there right now I’m sort of a godfather to. So how did you not get intimidated? I mean, it’s one thing to see this as an opportunity, but this is Bard, after all. How did you not get intimidated? To your earlier point, you didn’t have four credits to your name really at one point. So how did you not get intimidated by the opportunity?

Chochos: There’s a few things. Number one, the men that were in the program really became like mentors to us and kind of helped us through the process of taking the exam to get in and then taking our first classes, preparing, giving us study techniques and tips.

What Max did and the rest of the program is that they offered a space to where–they gave us a lot of assistance. So there was constantly people coming in to help us, to mentor us, and to tutor us, so that helped us to succeed in the classroom.

Tavis: Your first degree was what?

Chochos: My first degree was the Associates Degree at Bard.

Tavis: Right. And the second was?

Chochos: My second degree was a Bachelor in Social Science with the emphasis on psychology from Thomas Edison State College.

Tavis: So how long after you finished your second degree before you were released? You were in for 14 years. You completed both of these while you were incarcerated, correct?

Chochos: Well, I need to mention that that was done through correspondence. I was granted a BA in Social Studies from Bard College in 2010. From there, I went to Sing Sing…

Kenner: You going to tell him about your senior project?

Chochos: Oh, my senior project. Oh, my God, yeah.

Kenner: Let me just interrupt for a second. Everyone who graduates from Bard at a BA level has to write an original senior thesis. It would be the Honors thesis at most places.

Chochos: I’d love to talk about that. Bard is a very vigorous program. The classes, they were not watered down. They were just as hard as I think that Ewing said, that he makes the actual classes harder. Some of my classes required reading 10 to 13 textbooks per class per semester, writing at a very high level, and the BA degree, we took three BA seminars.

And the first BA seminar, actually we read almost a 300-page book a week and did a five-page paper a week. That’s 75 pages worth of writing to get us in the mode of writing so that way we could produce a senior project. Mine was 164 pages. It was on contentious city space, urban growth conflict.

Tavis: How supportive is–I mean, obviously, there’s a relationship here. But how supportive is the prison in giving you the time and space? You got time, I guess, on your hands when you’re incarcerated, but in terms of study time and writing time to do that kind of work, how does that work when you’re on the inside?

Chochos: Well, number one, you have to be diligent. You have to have time management. Believe it or not, you’d think we have a lot of time. You have to be really diligent and intentional about how you’re going to use your time inside of the prison. So for many hours, we’re in our cell, but for many other hours, we’re also out inside of the jail.

And BPI had actually space in the school building where we had a library, where we had access to computers. We didn’t always have access to computers, but in time, we had access to computers. So we spent the majority of our time studying inside of those spaces.

Kenner: Just to jump in there, when you look at what we do on campus–and this is true on any campus at Harvard or Yale or Bard or anywhere–the vast majority of the work, the faculty and the staff at those institutions do with undergraduates, is convincing students that the stuff they’re doing is relevant to them, that it matters. And once you’ve done that, students absolutely thrive.

And the reason I think, one of the important reasons, BPI students do so well at graduate schools, places like Yale, Columbia, NYU, running not for profits in New York City, is because from the very outset they recognize what’s at stake in their education.

And, Tavis, throughout American history, there have been groups of people who’ve recognized that, through education, something absolutely extraordinary can be accomplished and they can achieve more. Immigrants, for example, 80 years ago the best colleges in the United States were community colleges in Brooklyn and Queens because they were filled with people who weren’t allowed to go to the ivy leagues.

Well, veterans transformed the landscape of higher education in the 20th century, and we never ever talk about it. But no group of people accomplished more in education than the generation of people who were freed from slavery. I believe that, in our society today in the United States, incarcerated Americans fit that mold, are people who take more seriously the opportunity of education than too many others.

Tavis: How do you convince yourself, George, to study this hard, to work this hard, to earn these degrees? How do you convince yourself to work that hard when you know the same data that Max and I know, which is that society looks down on folk who have, even after serving their time, want to find a way back into society?

I mean, this is an old story. After people serve their time, they come out and they have the most difficult time trying to get gainful employment. How does one convince oneself to work as hard as you had to work when you’re incarcerated when you know that, when you get out, the opportunities might not avail themselves to you?

Chochos: I think the first thing, at least, and I’ll speak for myself, is I believe education is a good in and of itself. It does something to me. It helped to transform my mind, it helped to transform the way I see the world, and that I saw my own personal development even in spite of the what the results would be upon release.

However, I also knew that there were many men that had gone home–and it’s not really highlighted in our media today–that have gone home and done very well. They started programs, they became entrepreneurs. So there were those beacons of success, a kind of call to us to where our striving for educational pursuit could actually lead to living in a way that’s productive when we are released.

Tavis: So let me advance the story. So you got out what year?

Chochos: 2011.

Tavis: 2011. So tell me about your life after you got out and what you did then to continue your educational pursuits.

Chochos: Well, 2011, I was released September 23, 2011. I was hired at the Capitol City Rescue Mission which is a homeless shelter. I served there as a chaplain and assistant director of operations. I actually went back and met with my sentencing judge and had a conversation with him.

I also met D.A. David Soares, the D.A.’s office that actually sentenced me, and we were going to get to a place where we were going to work together on youth program development.

I met someone in the second semester of the Masters program actually at Sing Sing who was on Yale Divinity School’s Dean’s Advisory Council and I called him upon release, had a conversation with him and he encouraged me to apply to Yale Divinity School and, in 2013, I was accepted.

Tavis: Wow. And how is that coming along for you?

Chochos: It’s been an amazing journey not just because of the great institution that it is, but it’s also afforded me to do things like coming to a place like this and sit next to Max when I used to see him inside of a prison. So it’s been a great educational opportunity.

I’ve also been able to do some really good work there. I worked with Project Longevity, which seeks to reduce–they don’t want to call them gangs anymore–but group-related or gun violence inside of the city.

I also worked for Believe in Me Empowerment Corporation, which has a program where I worked with roughly 30 kids 9 to 12 years old who have a parent or parents incarcerated, for Reading for Reasoning program. Then I’ve also done personal mentoring with people coming home from prison.

Tavis: I’m curious as to why or how you ended up on the divinity track. I’m glad that you are, but this is more of a faith question than it is anything else. But for you, how did your journey, your faith journey, end you up on the divinity track?

Chochos: I’ll try to be as brief as I can. Inside of Rockland County, there is a place where they send you. It’s a holding cell before you actually go to population.

And inside of this holding cell, there’s not supposed to be anything in there, not even toilet paper or anything else because they’re actually afraid you may try to suffocate yourself. So they try to keep it as bare as possible. There happened to be a Daily Word in there and, for some reason, I picked it up. I brought it back to my cell.

For three years before that, going on a cocaine binge after my brother had died, I had actually gone into what is called a state of cocaine psychosis where, if you ingest enough of the substance, you alter your brain chemistry to where it mimics that of a paranoid schizophrenic.

I was in that state for nine months and didn’t come out of it. When I took that Daily Word back, literally this is the best way I can put it, I called on the name of Jesus and my mind cleared up. That’s exactly what happened.

I realized that there were two desires. Number one, to know what has just happened to me. Number two, to acquire an education. And I believe it was providence that I was allowed to go to BPI and to succeed and, hopefully, I’ll get a chance to go back in in the future after my educational pursuits are over and help others the same way that Max and others did for me.

Tavis: You will finish Yale when?

Chochos: I will finish Yale May 23rd of this year.

Tavis: [Laugh] I’m laughing because you have the date when you were released etched in your head and you have the date of your graduation…

Chochos: It’s another 23rd.

Tavis: I was about to say that. You beat me to it. I’m not sure I believe in numerology, but that 23 is a good number for you, though [laugh]. It’s a good number for you.

Chochos: Yes, it is.

Tavis: Max where do you see this program going into the future? I come back to the point I made earlier that we’re in the midst of a presidential campaign, at a moment in this country, I think, where the whole subject of mass incarceration is starting to get more traction, not where we ought to be on the conversation, but starting to get more traction. Where do you hope and think this program is going to be headed into the future?

Kenner: Well, you know, I would say a few things. First, you’re absolutely right. The issue at large is getting attention like it never has before, and it’s getting attention in a special way, right? In that virtually every other issue of any level of import in Washington is talked about in a purely partisan way, and criminal justice is different than that.

But what I would say is that, you know, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and it’s not the time to do a dance in the end zone, but we’re going to fix this problem, I believe.

But I don’t think we should be to sanguine about that, which is to say, I think we can marshal the resources to end what we call mass incarceration over the coming years. However, the reason education has to be at the center of the reform agenda is because we have to ask ourselves a question of what comes next.

I’ll just give you one analogy, right? If you thought or you spoke to the people in 1962 and 1963 about what was to come, fighting to end segregation, fighting for voting rights, right? And you tell them all the incredible success they’d have and the courage they would show, they’d be thrilled.

But if you then told them that 50 years later, there would be more African American men without the right to vote than in 1964, that’s extraordinary. So when we reform criminal justice, we have to do it in a way that invests in people, not making things less bad, but actually making them better.

Tavis: Max, I appreciate and applaud the work that you are doing, you and your colleagues at BPI.

Kenner: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: It’s a wonderful program and let me just, in advance of May 23rd, say congratulations to George Chochos. It’s good to have you on the program. We’re proud of you, man.

Chochos: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you for coming on. Wow. This is what I love on TV like this. Every night, we can have a show where you talk about what’s right about this country or what can be right about this country. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: March 9, 2016 at 1:34 pm