“The College That Enters the Prison Is Transformed”

The Bard Prison Initiative is a full-time, degree-granting college program ...

The Bard Prison Initiative is a full-time, degree-granting college program enrolling over three hundred incarcerated students. Last May I had the chance to speak with Daniel Karpowitz, BPI’s Director of National Programs, and Jessica Neptune, its Associate Director of National Programs and Director of BPI Chicago, about the program and about Karpowitz’s new book, College in Prison, which draws upon his experiences teaching for and directing the program. An episodic collection of classroom narratives and conversations with incarcerated students, interspersed with brief accounts of the history of prison education, College in Prison positions the Bard model—now expanded to sites all over the US through the Consortium for Liberal Arts in Prison—less as a means of prison abolition and more as an expansion of and argument for liberal arts education: making college available to a population of students who are otherwise often excluded. The book has new urgency in light of recent attempts by the New York State Department of Corrections to implement a policy that restricts the ability of incarcerated individuals to receive packages, effectively banning large numbers of books in prison.

This is a condensed and edited version of our conference call. Daniel Karpowitz and I were joined by Jessica Neptune about halfway through the conversation.

Sonya Posmentier (SP): Daniel, can you talk generally about how you became involved with BPI? And also, how you see your work there now fitting into your larger work as an educator and as someone who works in public policy?


Daniel Karpowitz (DK): I long had an interest, when I was first in the university, in having one foot in academia and one foot out, if such a thing were possible, and was choosing between doing a PhD in Shakespeare and going to law school. And when I made the decision to go to law school I decided to take a path through law school that would be an idiosyncratic approach to graduate school.

During that time, in Chicago in the mid-’90s, I was exposed to the concept of mass incarceration, which was not by any means a common term, phrase, or idea at that time. And I continued to move back and forth between the writing of a more academic nature that I had started in law school, and teaching opportunities at the university level, and then more practical work around constitutional law and civil rights. By the time I got to Bard, I had just had my first teaching experience in the Rhetoric program at Berkeley, and Bard was just starting to shift from BPI as an undergraduate volunteer program to a credit-bearing college degree program. Exactly the right place in exactly the right time.

That’s relevant because I think BPI reflects a temperament, a point of view, and a method that are important and attractive to me all these years later, precisely because it [the program] came first from an engagement with the intellectual life of the university, from a conventional sense of how that intellectual life and the academic project could engage with the world, and not about criminal justice and policy.

Almost always, this kind of work is considered an intervention in mass incarceration or an attempt at making a change in criminal justice policy.


SP: But that’s not really how you understand the aims of the Bard Program?


DK: That’s right. And that has major policy implications for who does the work, which colleges and universities do the work, what the terms of the relationship between the prison and the college will be. As well as how success is defined, and how measurements are put in place that reflect the underlying principles of the work. The central decision is whether this is thought of as first and foremost an intellectual and academic enterprise, and only secondarily an intervention in prisons or incarceration, or vice versa. Everything follows from that.

We certainly feel that our “criminal justice outcomes,” or our “pragmatic outcomes”—lower rates of recidivism, very high rates of post-release employment and income—those kinds of pragmatic and criminal justice outcomes are second to none in the country. We think we have the best outcomes of that nature, but that we achieve those because they’re not our goal. Because our goal is to make great college and to find students with great untapped potential. The aspirations which are intellectual, personal, social, academic, [even] physical, they are terms and goals that come from college.


SP: I was so struck in the book by the repeated insistence upon what you call “institution-neutral” learning. There’s an effort on your part, and on the part of the program and the instructors, to provide an education inside the prison that’s as close as possible to what you would do on Bard’s main campus.


DK: That’s right.


SP: We’ve talked about that in some ways on the policy level. Why has that felt so important on the curricular level?


DK: There is an acute thing here of allowing the prison to do what it tends to do, which is take over, to completely dominate. And that’s true obviously in the daily lives of people who are incarcerated in what is ostensibly the “total institution.” But also in the imagination of faculty and campus administrators. And one of the insidious ways that comes out is, “Oh, what’s relevant to these students?” or worse “What’s interesting to these students?” And then, of course, what’s worse: “What can they really do?” All of those are questions that amount to either a major departure from what I understand to be the liberal arts education or even a betrayal of it.

We actually have a very student-centric approach to how new fields are taught, and when new disciplines like German or Mandarin or economics are brought into our curriculums it’s because of student demand. German was our first foreign language. Why is that? It was because the students in their upper-level BA seminar were studying with an anthropologist who was discussing W. E. B. Du Bois’s relationship to both the emergence of Pan-African diaspora politics and the emergence at Columbia [University] of the culture concept [of racial difference, developed at Columbia in the early 20th century in the anthropology department under Franz Boas to combat the biological concept of racial difference]. And the students were like, “Du Bois studied with Weber in Germany? Meaning, in German? Well why do we get all that stuff in translation? Do you think we’re not good enough? We want that.”


SP: I love that you got there through Du Bois. That’s such a great story.


DK: Yeah, it’s beautiful. Right? How do you get there? You get there through a sense of inclusiveness, and a commitment to not make presumptions about what’s interesting to people in prison, and what’s relevant to people in prison, what they’re capable of. So what is the alternative to that? For us, methodologically, the safest alternative is to replicate the college: with all its faults, with all its limitations, and all of its continuously evolving diversity. Everything, that is, that represents a liberal arts college of a high quality, from the northeast United States in the early 21st century.

SP: At one point in the book you say that “the college that enters the prison is transformed,” and that seemed to me a different kind of statement than your insistence that you wouldn’t ever want to transform the college on the occasion of its entering the prison. How is Bard College different because BPI is part of it?


DK: The college has been changed. Both its students and its faculty have had an entirely new horizon opened up for them, making them consciously think about who’s incarcerated, what does it mean to be incarcerated, how are “talents” or “brains” distributed to the world? And I think for undergraduates in particular, that is very important. Another change is that I think it’s a very powerful lesson for students at Bard to see what they themselves as students do. BPI was started because a group of students—most of them from personally, or more structurally, politicized families—started it. And they led the college into this work.

It’s accelerated the sense that we need to think differently and much more inclusively about who can be in college.


SP: Jessica, can you tell me a little bit about how you became involved in BPI and also more about what you do?


Jessica Neptune (JN): I was a part of the original group of undergraduate students that were involved in this student organization. Fifteen-plus years ago. And I had come to Bard from New Mexico, growing up in a place where criminal justice involvement was far more common than access to higher education. As people who I had grown up with were not completing high school—but were instead in jail and facing felony charges while I was at Bard—I had a really clear sense of “there but for the grace of god go I.”

Someone who I had taken a lot of classes with and was just a year above me at Bard, Max Kenner, had invited me to start getting involved in this student organization that he was forming called the Bard Prison Initiative. So that framed what I was interested in intellectually as a college student. But also really shaped the trajectory of my entire professional career.


SP: Daniel, one of the things about the book that I found really revelatory is when you describe how the college exists within the geography of the state, New York State, and how it disrupts what you call the geography of punishment. But also how it shapes the economy of the state and is shaped by the economy of the state. So I was wondering about the challenges and discoveries of adapting the program to a more national model and to different geographies.


DK: Few states, if any, I believe, in the North are as economically polarized as New York State. One of the exciting challenges of developing these programs is to think about that geography, and, as usual, that involves a twin, in closely related but very distinct spheres. That is, first, the map of criminal justice in a given state. But just as, if not more, importantly, the map of higher academic excellence and the resources that leading universities can bring. What is that map?

This is one of the reasons Jessica is based in Chicago. It’s not only the epicenter of a lot of criminal justice geography, in Illinois. It’s also an extraordinary academic landscape. You can see that there are twin geographies at play there.

And you know when we think about a state, that’s where we begin: where’s that anchor institution? Where’s that transformative faculty? Where’s that institution that has a lot of assets, broadly as well as conventionally defined? That maybe could be put to use better than they are?


SP: It comes up in the book that BPI is a program that almost depends upon working with private institutions that have capital and prestige and stability, and therefore can be disruptive of public institutions of incarceration. What is the role of public education in relation to these criteria? Jessica, I’m interested in your perspective as someone who worked for the federal government on the policy end, and now is working on the education end of things. That’s an interesting trajectory.


JN: I think it’s important to understand the sort of diversity of the institutions we’ve worked with, even as some are community colleges and some are small liberal arts schools and some are R1s [highest-level doctoral research universities, according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Learning]. Certainly, when I was in that policy position, I recognized Bard and its consortium partners as being really peerless. That wasn’t just in terms of high-quality academics or in terms of the outcomes and success of our alumni, or in terms of ambition. But it was also, for me as a policy person, incredibly paradigm-shattering because I was working at the time with all of the most renowned and respected reentry practitioners and programs, all the programs that were getting the second-chance-act grant money and all of the programs that are invited to come to Washington to speak about what they do and to offer advice. And across that landscape, as much as we recognize education, it [education] is actually far more ignored than it should be.

When you introduce what Bard does and what our alumni are doing, it really disrupts the entire narrative and the entire conversation that is typically being had about reentry. And it really challenges basic assumptions about who’s in prison, what they’re capable of, and what our expectations—whether we are policymakers, or grant writers, or educators—should be of folks coming out of prison. I think there are often assumptions about the appropriate kinds of institutions that should be doing this work. What does it mean that we have both University of Vermont and Yale coming on at the same time in terms of helping to shatter those more cynical assumptions that are so typical and define a lot of reentry policy?

The other thing that comes to mind is the continuity between all of these programs.


The Future of Diversity on Campus

By Catharine R. Stimpson

DK: When we think about who is a public sector university or college, a two-year college, or four-year public college that we can work with, we do not ask, we absolutely do not ask, “Which is the public college that the prison system will be most helpful with?” We do not ask, “Which two-year college or four-year state university has the kind of curricula that are appropriate for people in prison?” We do not ask any of those questions. Everybody else does. We don’t. What do we have? Which public two-years are stable leaders in getting their students to four-year degrees? Forty percent of the UCLA philosophy department, undergrad, came from the two-year system in California. That’s awesome! That’s a two-year you want to work with!


JN: Everyone is always interested in the question of scaling to size, right? Scaling up and scaling to size. Daniel was just mentioning the California system, and he talks about it in his book, and I think that’s just such an important way to engage with folks who are so preoccupied with scale: thinking more about creating a sort of diversity, or an ecology, of opportunities within the system, within the prison system, that looks more like how it looks on the outside. That’s so often not the direction that people instinctually land on—to have that diversity.

As much as there’s a range of types of institutions that are members of the consortium now, they share a commitment to the liberal arts and to providing that kind of spectrum, that breadth of the liberal arts in their program. That’s one of the core principles of the consortium that each institution has embraced.


DK: You know, you could take a very antagonistic or highly critical attitude towards the whole concept of scale. Okay, this is me as a humanist talking here. A humanist who went to law school, but I cannot help but feel that most of the time when the question of scale comes up, it’s not as pragmatic as it sounds. It’s really about reproducing people’s class positions, and keeping them in place. People don’t ask about scale for themselves or for their own children. Scale is for other people’s children.


SP: I want to make sure I understand what you mean by scale. Do you mean when people say, “Well, what does it mean if we can’t scale it up?” That kind of thing?


DK: Yeah, well, “This is all very good and well for blah blah blah blah, but how do you do this for 250 million Americans?”


SP: Right, okay.


DK: It opens up a divide in people’s consciousness that is very, you know, about self and other. You do not hear liberal foundations or liberal people in governments say, “How do we make an elite college education for scale?” They’re not really asking that “how?” They’re really saying, “This can’t be done. And we don’t want to do it.”


SP: Right. It’s a negation.


DK: What they’re really saying is, “I don’t want this.” And really, it’s a political and an emotional position masquerading as a utilitarian one. And I think it’s kind of horrifying. You empower us and see if Jessica, Max [Kenner], and Jed [Tucker] and I can take this kind of quality to scale. Put some wind in our sails and let’s give it a shot.


JN: And I do think there are a lot of people who are really well-intentioned who for whatever reason think this is strange. It wasn’t a part of the paradigm to imagine this kind of education being possible. And policymakers often can’t really parse that out, so there’s a lot of talk about quality—without actually recognizing that what they’re imagining quality being for other people’s children is different than how they would define quality for themselves. And I think that’s something that we really try to face head-on and challenge.


Painting while Shackled to a Floor

By Nicole R. Fleetwood

SP: I have one last question, if you don’t mind. I’m an English professor, and I’m really struck by the subtitle, Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration, because of the emphasis on reading, so I wanted to ask you to talk more about the special status of reading in the project.


DK: Great. Thank you. I’d love to. My roots are in English. I mentioned the Shakespeare. Well, the last time I was on Bard’s campus I found a copy of the Seven Types of Ambiguity, and I think it maybe made my day.


SP: [laughs]


DK: Let me use this as an opportunity to say something shameless, you know, for the purposes of our conversation. One of my aspirations for the book is that students, conventional undergraduates, can engage with it to push into some questions about their own education. And about reading. And about the liberal arts, and about the state of higher education and the academy. The “reading” speaks to that, and it speaks to my discomfort with scale. It speaks to my discomfort with the standard social science ways of understanding criminal justice policy as well as assessing and justifying education. It speaks to my sense of the messiness. It really speaks to the inspiration from Baldwin [in the book’s epigraph] about paradox.

Paradox is, you know, the essence of reading. There is some polemic in this book. There is some advocacy in this book. But I didn’t think we needed a book-length policy argument on behalf of college in prison. I think you can do it in a page. But you know there’s a lot of complexity to this work, and there’s a lot of ambiguity to the work. And there’s a lot of moral compromise. And there’re a lot of different ways to interpret it. And so the idea of reading in an age of mass incarceration, reading in, is meant to draw attention to the sort of spaces or places within which this kind of college happens. But it also indicates for me it’s the center of learning—“reading” both literally and as a metaphor for interpreting and reinterpreting. And the students sort of reading back to us, what we know and what we don’t know.


Transcription assistance was provided by Jessica Modi.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom and Liz Maynes-Aminzade. icon

Featured image: EAS Commencement, January 2017. Photograph by Karen Pearson