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.