The Bard Prison Initiatve

Emre Umar BPI


On Correctional Medical Care’s website, we recently wrote a piece about comedian Jeff Ross entering a Texas prison to “roast” the inmates. In it, he asked the crowd how many of them were anticipating getting their GEDs during their stay. Some–though not most–raised their hands, indicating a willingness to learn and grow academically and fundamentally during their otherwise unfortunate stay in prison.


It’s been shown in the past that getting an education in prison benefits the prisoners upon their release. Better educated prison inmates are better prepared to enter the workforce and return to the “normalcy” of a full-time job and supporting themselves. They’re also statistically less likely to find themselves in trouble with the law– reducing the rate of recidivism that is plaguing the United States on a grand scale.


So what if prison inmates could earn more than just a GED–what if they could expand their area of study and earn a degree? The Bard Prison Initiative offers just that. One of very few higher education sources within prison walls, Bard offers the ability for inmates to earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees while incarcerated.


Bard College is a private liberal arts college located in rural New York–by all means a very real, very legitimate and very accredited college that offers both graduate and undergraduate degrees. Within the umbrella of Bard College is the aforementioned Bard Prison Initiative, which educates about 200 students a year from five New York prisons.


Though higher education studies within prisons were not wholly uncommon previously, the federal budget for prison education programs was eliminated in 1994, causing many to cease operations. Bard, however, continued its mission to educate prisoners throughout New York, and still does so to this day.


The program, according to its website, has been a huge success, as it sports both lower recidivism rates and fairly high levels of post-release job placement. And getting in isn’t a particularly easy task. Getting into the Bard Prison Initiative program isn’t just as simple as signing a piece of paper and showing up for a class or two–there is a full-fledged admissions process to get into the bachelor’s degree program. At the culmination, real, legitimate college degrees are given to the prisoners, who can finish their liberal arts studies on their own schedule depending on their incarceration situation.


While GED programs in college have been immensely popular over time, some inmates in NY prisons have taken the next step, moving onto obtaining a college degree. And, to them, it’s not just a way to spend a few hours a day or a means of staying out of trouble–it’s a process to prepare for the future.


“In my experience in college there are definitely people who are just kind of drifting through ‘the normal path’ for upper-middle class kids without much imagination or direction,” said an undergrad volunteer at the Bard Prison Initiative. “You don’t find that sort of attitude from BPI students — they know what sort of opportunity they have on their hands and are very determined to use it.”

Prison Programming Gets Literal


At its, the programming that you’ll find within a prison serves a myriad of purposes, the most prominent of which is to reform the prisoner for a better life outside of the walls of a jail cell. In the past, I’ve written about pet therapy, family therapy, the SMART program, and gardening projects within prisons that serve specific purposes that include helping prison inmates adapt and grow emotionally, prepare them for life after prison, help strengthen family bonds, or a combination of them all. Now, with evolving technology elbowing its way into everyone’s’ lives, prison programming is following suit, bringing computer-savvy to the skill sets of those who may be able to utilize it later in life.


In 2014, members of San Quentin State Prison in California got to experience, for what was likely the first time ever, today’s computing technology at their fingertips. The struggles of understanding new technology after a lengthy cut-off have been well-documented. For those who haven’t so much as seen a smartphone or touched a computer since their incarceration, learning in-depth backend computer skills could prove exceptionally difficult. But for these prisoners, it’s simply another challenge to take on.


For many inmates who aren’t serving a life sentence, a priority is not only making their prison experience as easy and incident-free as possible, it’s ensuring that their post-prison life is as smooth as possible.


Upon release, many former prisoners struggle to adjust to life on the outside. Technology changes, people change and, most of all, the lifestyle is entirely different. There’s not a regiment, you don’t get housing gifted to you any longer. Essentially, you’re on your own. And for many, this is a shock, and it’s difficult to find yourself back in the swing of things. Job placement is an extremely strenuous portion of post-release life for former prisoners. Often, they leave incarceration without a core skill-set and, of course, with a criminal record.


Code.7370, however, is changing all of that. Chris Redlitz entered San Quentin State Prison with only one goal: to educate prisoners on how to code from start to finish. The project was immensely successful, and Redlitz credits it to the prisoners’ desire to learn.


“When I was finished speaking, hands went into the air,” said Redlitz in an article on “My thirty-minute talk turned into a two-hour discussion. These men were prepared, motivated and committed to learning how they could create a better life after they served their time.”


Since its inception in 2014, none of the graduates of the program have been sentenced to any jail time. And Code.7370 is just getting started, as the program has since expanded to other prisons in the area. Redlitz hopes to make a national program out of Code.7370 in years to come.

A “Smart” Prison Program

When Francis Scott Key concluded the Star Spangled Banner by penning the words “the land of the free, and the home of the brave,” he likely didn’t consider the fact that, today, America is now close to being considered the land of the free and home of the stressed. An estimated 1 in 2 Americans have experienced a large stressful event in their lives in the past year according to NPR. Similarly, an APA study found that almost three-quarters of Americans reported having felt stressed over money in the past year.


As you may expect, incarceration is far from a walk in the park. Prisoners, like most Americans, often find themselves feeling overwhelmed at points of their lives. However, unlike your average American, an inmate cannot choose to simply go for a walk, listen to relaxing music or watch some mind-numbing television to unwind at his or her leisure. Inside of a prison, as you’d likely expect, is more of a breeding ground for stress than it is a stress-relieving environment.


However prison programs across the country often have the goal of doing just that–helping to calm down inmates, get them into the right state of mind, and prepare them for the post-incarceration world.


Perhaps the most difficult aspect of prison programming is finding programs that prisoners are interested in that benefit them, and are intelligently constructed. What’s smarter, then, than SMART? Featured in 45 countries around the world, Stress Management and Rehabilitation Training, or S.M.A.R.T puts a large focus on helping inmates manage their stress and emotions with the hope of lowering the rate of recidivism across the globe.


According to the SMART website,Prison SMART teaches skills that reduce stress, heal trauma, and provides practical knowledge of how to handle negative emotions in order to live to one’s highest potential and contribute to society in a positive way.” The key behind the success that SMART has seen since its inception in 1992 is the program’s adaptability. A primary focus of the SMART programming, which claims to have benefitted over 350,000 people, are breathing exercises. These exercises, however, aren’t limited to only prisoners, but families, victims and entire departments within prisons.


While “deep breathing” might seem like more of a side effect of a lengthy jog than a programming effort, the benefits of the SMART program are impressive to say the least. According to the website, participants in the course have relayed that they get better sleep, feel less anxious, depressed and conflicted, have better self-control and a more positive outlook, among many, many others.


The practice of Sudarshan Kriya, the deep breathing technique employed by SMART has had enormous benefits on prison inmates, guards, and many others, and can be added to the list of meaningful prison programs that are giving aid to inmates around the world.

Family Programming Benefits Everyone Involved

When a parent is sentenced to serve time in prison it can be absolutely debilitating to the family of the inmate. Correctional Medical Care has written before about the toll that incarceration of a parent can have on a child; the short of it is an increase in mental health issues including depression and anxiety and incredibly poor self-esteem. Seeing their parents only on the occasional conjugal visit can have negative impacts on a child–particularly one who is still in the developmental phase–that don’t need to be explained any further.


But how does it affect the parent–how is the person who committed the crime and was sentenced to serve their due time affected by interactions with their children? While I’ve previously written about the effects of gardening programs within prisons, and more recently animal therapy programs, family bonding activities within prison have been shown to have noticeable impacts on prison inmates.


The “family intervention” unit that one prison in the UK opened up in 2010 has seen remarkable impacts on both the prisoners involved and the their children. In an interview with BBC, Corin Morgan-Armstrong, the head of the program at the prison said “It’s about reducing reoffending and it’s about improving the future outcomes of these children, most of whom will have negative, pre-determined outcomes because of their parental situation.”


The initiative established at HM Prison Parc in Bridgend allows children to engage in interactive reading and playful workshops and programs with their parents who are currently serving time. According to the prison inspectors involved, the prisoners at HM Prison Parc have seen a large increase in visits from family when compared to those who do not.


While that program is focused on one particular prison in the UK, programs like the Fortune Society also offer family services within prison walls in the US as more and more people have begun to recognize the importance of family values even in those who have committed crimes. The formation of strong family bonds between the prisoners, their children and their husbands and/or wives has had a measured impact on not only the children, but also the prisoner him or herself.


Prison programs like Fathers for Life also help incarcerated males from the time they’re sentenced until their release to help improve the quality of life for both the fathers and their children. Parenting support is offered to the men who have been serving time through the Fathers for Life program, wholly benefiting all parties involved.


Depriving incarcerated inmates of their basic human rights–access to medical care and housing is something that far too many people believe is the standard in prisons. Depriving them of access to their families, including children, is something that others believe benefits the children, when in fact the opposite is true. The benefits of family access for both the family and the inmate is something that should convince policymakers to implement programs like these in prisons nationwide.


The Dog Days of Prison Programming

Emre Umar


Since the late 1970s, therapy dogs have been used in an almost unlimited capacity. From retirement homes and hospitals to college campuses, dogs have been shown repeatedly to have calming effects on those who play with, pet, or even just sit in the presence of the dogs. And therapy animals aren’t just limited to dogs; human-animal interaction has been long proven to have anti-stress effects and promote social interaction. Now, with these studies and understandings in tow, animal therapy is slowly making its way into the prison yard.

Therapy dogs have been making appearances in prisons in Italy for a time now with enormous success. Bollate prison, where the Dogs Inside program is in effect, has seen its repeat offender rate drop to an incredibly low 20 percent since utilizing the program and other similar ones.

According to Therapy Dogs United, “Medical science shows that interaction with a therapy dog can reduce blood pressure, promote physical healing, reduce anxiety, fatigue and depression, and provide emotional support.” Therapy dogs are often used for those who fall on the Autism spectrum or those who find themselves inundated with stress.

Programs that pair animals–sometimes dogs, sometimes abandoned animals of all species–with prisons have more than simply calming effects on the inmate. They, like the gardening programs mentioned previously, can help prepare the inmates for life outside of prison.

And the benefits extend beyond those offered to the inmates. Often, the animals who are trained to become therapy animals for use in prison are rescued former pets who were, much like some of the prison inmates they’re trained to help, were simply waiting in a cage on what amounts to the animal equivalent of death row. These rescue animals have been introduced to prisoners who go years without seeing or interacting with any sort of fuzzy friends.

The interactions give offenders valuable time not only to destress, but to learn and grow as individuals. The inmates involved with these programs are often asked to help with the training of the dogs themselves, creating a mutually beneficial environment in which both parties can grow and thrive. The inmates learn about the care and training regiments of dogs while the dogs become more accustomed to human behavior, allowing them to act as therapy dogs in the future. From there, the dogs are often adopted, based on skill-set, into families or job settings in need of therapy animals.

And the human-animal interactions don’t just stop at dogs–not even close. In Key West, Florida at the Stock Island Detention Center, inmates are given the opportunity to help take care of and perform daily maintenance for a wide variety of animals, from alpacas and tortoises to pigs and ducks. The collection of farm animals, which also includes a mini horse, are all obtained by the Monroe County prison through various means, taking in animals that would otherwise be without owners or caretakers.

The prisoners, who work at the farm as a part of a trustee program under guidance from guards and animal biologist Jeanne Selander, help feed, clean up and groom the animals.

“A lot of the inmates maybe have never had anybody that cared about them,” Selander said in an interview with Upworthy. “And to see that the animals need them … it means something to them. And they really take good care of them and I have some of them say, ‘You’re in jail just like me.'”

News of new and burgeoning means of prisoner rehabilitation comes on the tail of President Obama’s focus on rehabilitation as a means of treatment in place of punishment. As more and more creative–and effective–prison programs continue to appear around the country, the US has begun to make strides towards lowering its prison readmission rate.


Gardening Programs Offer Way For Inmates to Flourish

Gardening Programs Offering Way for Inmates to Flourish


Often times when inmates get free time it’s spent doing one of a small number of cliche activities: lifting weights, playing basketball or hanging around the courtyard talking to fellow inmates. Images of prison yard fights and violence conjure in the heads of people who think about the idea of time spent by prisoners outside of their cell.

But the Insight Garden Program hopes to change that, and so far it’s working.

The program, which is exclusive to California at the moment but hopes to expand nationwide, allows prisoners to experience nature while incarcerated. The thought of prisoners learning about horticulture, landscaping and plant life may seem far-fetched, but it has seen great results when applied. This is due in part to the fact that the Insight Garden Project not only allows for an educational and calming outlet for prisoners to spent their free time, but it better prepares them for their lives upon release.

According to the National Institute of Justice, three quarters of those who spend time behind bars will wind up arrested within five years of their release. This can be due in part to a lack of social and job-related skills upon release into the outside world. But gardening programs like IGP can help to change that.

Planting Justice, an organization that aided the Insight Gardening Project in opening the first vegetable garden inside of a prison in San Quentin, claims that it’s programs can drop the inmate recidivism rate substantially. According to its website, only 10 percent of the inmates who go through the gardening programs available find themselves back in prison. According to Planting Justice, at least 10 former inmates who participated in the gardening project were hired to do landscaping work and given living wages upon their release.

IGP takes a holistic approach to reforming and empowering inmates that elect to take part in the weekly programs. The approach is two fold, focusing on both the “inner gardener” and the “outer gardener” in separate but equally important points of focus.

The “inner gardener” workshops help inmates reform themselves internally, utilizing measures such as meditation, ecotherapy (nature-based psychological therapy) and emotional process work.

The “outer gardener” classes instruct inmates on exactly what you’d expect: landscaping tools, gardening and knowledge of the ecosystem and other skills useful in life. On top of the life skills and valuable experience, the gardens have an additional benefit: fresh food.

“Just think about it,” said Charles, an inmate in a video from Panting Justice. “Fresh tomatoes and all of those things, that’s a dream to us.”

And the dream that Charles, one of the inmates in the flagship San Quentin program, spoke of extends beyond just those in the program itself. The food helps to feed the prisoners within the prison and helps cut back on prison costs, but in some cases excess food is donated to local shelters, helping give aid to those in need outside of the walls of prison.

Other similar programs have found incredible rates of success around the country. Prisons in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York have recognized the importance of utilizing a gardening program for both inmates and the community.

While the stigmas that surround prisoners may be hard to break, gardening programs like these can help transform not only the perception of prisoners, but inmates’ outlook on life and their post-incarceration success.


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