Educating inmates

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  February 6, 2008

"Wave of reform: There is now a chance to fix Maine’s broken corrections system, but only if the public speaks up." By Lance Tapley.
Another wave of reform is surging from Lewiston’s Bates College: a movement to expand college courses for prisoners. The goal has been embraced by the state Department of Corrections.

At a Bates meeting on January 21, Max Kenner, of Bard College, gave a history lesson to 50 students, professors, and prison-reform activists. Higher education, he said, once was a big part of prison rehabilitation programs, but the “Clinton Crime Bill,” the tough-on-criminals legislation signed by President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s, killed most courses for prisoners by preventing them from receiving Pell grants, which help poor people pay college tuition.

Kenner administers Bard’s free courses for 300 inmates in five New York state prisons. Despite the lack of federal money, he said, the degree-granting Bard Prison Initiative demonstrates it is possible, with the support of a college and some philanthropists, to put together a successful and “embarrassingly inexpensive” program. His runs on less than $1 million a year (by comparison, the Maine Corrections Department's annual budget is $153 million). The payoff for this investment? Studies show that nothing works so well, Kenner said, to reduce recidivism.

College courses for prisoners have more than vocational value. In teaching self-knowledge, “the humanities are potentially life-saving engagements” for inmates, Rob Farnsworth, a Bates English professor, told the meeting. He described his experience teaching prisoners in New York.

Laura Balladur, the French instructor who is organizing the Bates initiative, hopes to involve other colleges in Maine. The state now allows some prisoners to take correspondence courses and, through the University of Maine at Augusta, interactive television (ITV) classes, but Balladur’s program would put professors in prison classrooms.

According to deputy Corrections commissioner Denise Lord — who called Balladur’s ideas “excellent” — the department has no objection to “on-site” courses. They are not offered because of lack of money, she said.

Balladur said she has a commitment from the Sunshine Lady Foundation to help finance the project, although no dollar amount has yet been promised. The foundation is run by billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s sister, Doris Buffett. It already underwrites prisoner ITV courses in Maine.

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