Review: Daniel Karpowitz’s “College in Prison”

If you seek inspiration in these depressing times, if you need one iota of decency to keep you going, if you despair that Donald Trump’s lack of humility will permeate every aspect of our culture, search no further.  Read Daniel Karpowitz’s stirring commitment to higher education in prisons in New York State. Forget all the naysayers who believe that prison should only be punishment (a guarantee for recidivism). Read Karpowitz’s illuminating account of Bard College’s decade long program to give offenders a second chance in their lives. Bard has long been regarded as an enlightened institution, willing to take risks with academic programs under the belief that much of higher education is closed off to people who need it the most (non-elites). And although Bard is, indeed, a select liberal arts college, stop there.  Almost everything else demarcates it from most other schools in its same league.

Bard’s program began in 2001 and currently “Three hundred incarcerated men and women go to Bard College full-time in prison.” The courses have the same expectations of incarcerated students as those on the Bard campus, as well as the same standards. All students are on full scholarship. The recidivism rate is 2% for those who have finished their degrees, 4% for the ones who have taken some courses but not graduated. These figures are in contrast to the approximate 40% recidivism rate for the state as a whole. Karpowitz does not provide a figure for what the actual costs are to keep men and women in prison in New York or what it costs, specifically, to provide for the BPI (Bard Prison Initiative) but I have seen figures for other states (California, for example) indicating that the cost for incarcerating a prisoner is higher than typical educational expenses for a year in college. It’s difficult for me to understand how anyone can see college in prison not as a good investment.

Fifteen percent of the residents of New York are black, but fifty percent of its prisoners are. That telling disproportion is true, or worse, for many other areas in the country and has resulted in the erroneous conclusion that what minorities need are educational programs providing technical training. Karpowitz disagrees and collegeinprisoneloquently states that what all college students need are courses in the humanities, still the focus of most liberal arts colleges. That assumption has been attacked in recent years (“What good is a degree in English?) because of frequent parental insistence (parents are generally paying the bills) that their children avoid the humanities, that the humanities will prepare them for nothing. To this, Karpowitz observes, “The perceived crisis in the academy is not about the poverty or ossification of our traditions but about our institutional failure to take the risks needed to find students in unconventional places and engage them at critical moments in their lives.”

Nowhere is that more obvious than in Karpowitz’s specific accounts of Bard’s process of selecting students for the prison programs, of his teaching Crime and Punishment to his students, and in his narrative of four prisoners writing their graduation speeches. All of these show Karpowitz as a gifted educator. In the interviews for their admission to the college program, the potential students are repeatedly questioned to reveal things about themselves that demonstrate their uniqueness in coping with the monotony of prison life that will also provide the intellectual spark for their success in the program. One prisoner had difficulty explaining why he said he had so little time for the college program and a resistance to writing. Then under further probing, he revealed that at the end of every day he wrote an account of what happened for his nine-year-old daughter. When finished, he wrote a second account for his five-year-old daughter. Another student stated, “I found myself getting comfortable in here—in prison. And it terrified me. I looked around for the best way to make myself uncomfortable again—and I chose the college.” When I read that passage, I couldn’t help recalling, Herman Melville’s narrator of Moby Dick, explaining his decision to go to sea: complacency.    Karpowitz provides his reasoning for teaching Dostoevsky’s novel to his prison students, stating that it “encourages serious inquiry into the foundations of existing moral conventions and the structural injustice of the existing criminal justice system.…” For more than a decade, I’ve been teaching in a book club at one of the Maryland public prisons, but I haven’t had the courage to include a book so close to the events that have resulted in many of my students’ incarceration as Crime and Punishment. Nor do I think that I could push my students as hard as Karpowitz has in getting them to write a perfect graduation speech. I feared as I read through the process that he was being unfair with them. Then, I saw the results and again witnessed Karpowitz’s brilliance.

One of the courses that he praises as part of the BPI is called “The Constitution and Slavery,” initiated by a colleague. The irony of the title is the Constitution’s failure to mention slavery, yet this provides the perfect opportunity to address moral issues of omission and provoke the analytical skills at the center of a liberal education. Reflecting on his own course with the same focus, Karpowitz notes, “As we had discovered in the conventional curriculum that year, it is a common travesty to teach the origins and significance of the U.S. Constitution without engaging deeply with the place of slavery in the founding of the country, its central place in both its economy, its fundamental law, and its contemporary ramifications. In a similar way, I have long noted how our familiar but quite important moral imperatives for individual responsibility and culpability all too often serve to conceal and displace the political imperative, equally important, to take shared responsibility for the foundational and deeply flawed institutions that constitute so much in our lives.”

For centuries, our culture has swept aside the same moral issues the Constitution avoided. Prisons are the evidence of this dereliction, mostly designed to perpetuate the status quo. A challenging liberal arts education can rectify these issues; how often that happens should be every serious educator’s concern. Fortunately, one unique school has discovered a way to institute moral thinking inside the walls of the state’s prisons. That same questioning should be occurring outside of prison walls.

Daniel Karpowitz: College in Prison
Rutgers Univ. Press, 208 pp., $24.95

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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