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Bennington College Launches Prison Education Initiative

BENNINGTON, VT – Bennington College recently launched the Prison Education Initiative, through which the college will be offering courses with transferable credits to prisoners at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, NY, a maximum-security prison with 1,600 inmates.

The Prison Education Initiative was developed at a Think Tank about the question of higher education in prison held in April at the college’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA). Panelists and advisors included the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent of Great Meadow Correctional Facility, the Bard Prison Initiative, Hudson Link, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, JustLeadershipUSA, College and Community Fellowship and a number of other dedicated people.

“That less than seven months after the Think Tank, the first Prison Education Initiative class was held at Great Meadow is a consequence of some of the most brilliant and effective thinkers and leaders in the country coming together to exchange ideas and experience,” says Susan Sgorbati, director of Center for the Advancement of Public Action. “The Prison Education Initiative offers a practical and effective educational service that reflects the values and traditions of Bennington College.”

Bennington is following a model first introduced by the Bard Prison Initiative. Bennington joins Bard College, Cornell University and other colleges and universities in offering courses in New York state.

Before the 1994 Crime Bill, incarcerated students had access to higher education via Pell Grants, which are federally funded need-based grants available to low-income undergraduate and certain post-baccalaureate students to promote access to postsecondary education. In the Crime Bill of 1994, Pell Grants for incarcerated students were discontinued, and post secondary education in prisons was drastically reduced. Currently, the programs offered by colleges and universities are privately funded.

Incarcerated individuals who participated in post secondary correctional education were less likely to return to prison than prisoners who did not. The Bard Prison Initiative found that, among formerly incarcerated participants in the program, fewer than two percent have returned to prison; nationwide, nearly 68 out of every 100 prisoners are rearrested within three years of release, and more than half return to prison.

Faculty members David Bond and Annabel Davis-Goff are currently co-teaching a college-preparation course at Great Meadow. In the spring, inmate students will take credit-bearing courses in social science, literature and American history. The credits earned through the Prison Education Initiative will be transferable. The courses taught are identical in content and standards to those offered at Bennington.

The Bennington Prison Education Initiative is part of Bennington College’s CAPA Incarceration in America initiative. Faculty member Annabel Davis-Goff is the director of Bennington’s Incarceration in America Initiative. It is funded by the College and by the Harry J. Brown Jr. Private Foundation.

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