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Bard College backs plan to bring college classes to prisons

RED HOOK -- For more than a decade, Bard College has worked to bring college courses to area prisons. Currently 275 inmates are enrolled in the Bard Prison Initiative, which them to earn associates and bachelors degrees.

We take everything we have for granted, those prisoners don't. What they've learned from incarceration is to value every second of their life. They can think for themselves. Those are the best prepared students we've ever had, said Leon Botstein, President of Bard College.

The program is funded entirely by private donations and could be expanded under a program by Governor Andrew Cuomo to offer degrees to inmates.

So far, more than 250 inmates have earned degrees and left prison. BPI boasts less than 4 percent have returned, compared to the 40 percent average.

It's a good investment. It reduces recidivism and therefore in the end it reduces the cost of incarceration. Im so proud the governor took this on. He could set a national example with it, said Botstein.

Cuomo could face an uphill struggle to get support for the program. BPI itself would like to continue expanding, but has to rely on donations to keep the program going at a cost of about $5,000 a year for each inmate.

I think what the governor will discover is there are some institutions that are snobby about this; that worry about the value of their degree. Theres still a part of the population that is too focused on punishment, said Botstein. There are barriers in people's attitudes, people's notion of fairness. Revenge is so attractive, retribution is so attractive to people psychologically.

Since 1999, the program has expanded to six area prisons. The classes are taught by Bard professors; the inmates earn Bard College credits and earn Bard degrees.

Our success is most evident in our students and alumni who have since left prison and are now in the communities where they live and work, said Megan Callaghan, Director of College Operations for BPI. I think once people learn a little bit about it it's easy to recognize why it's a good investment. It's demonstrated to save taxpayer money and to create new taxpayers instead of recidivists.

On average, BPI says its alumni get jobs within two months of leaving prison. Administrators also point out their alumni can do more with a Bard associates or bachelors degree versus the more commonly offered prison vocational training.

Just because you're a prisoner doesn't mean the only thing you know how to do is a menial task and you actually value the intelligence that has a fair representation inside our prison system, said Botstein. Young people who went astray can also be gifted.

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