A Former Drug Dealer Gives A Great Defense Of The Liberal Arts

Jun 21, 2014
Originally published on June 25, 2014 12:00 pm

In preparation for my visit to the 11th annual commencement ceremony of the Bard Prison Initiative, I sat down for a conversation with Donnell Hughes, an alumnus of the program. BPI, as it's called, gives inmates at six prisons around New York state the opportunity to study in person with professors not only from Bard College, but from MIT, Harvard, Columbia, Vassar and local community colleges.

It's one of only a few dozen programs around the country that actually awards college degrees to prisoners — a few thousand per year out of the 2.3 million people in prison.

I was expecting to hear a story of redemption from Hughes, and he has one. I wasn't expecting to hear a full-throated defense of the liberal arts.

Hughes grew up in the Bronx, N.Y. "Before I went to prison, my life was pretty much in turbulence," he said. "I was in the streets. I was a drug dealer. I was living a fast life." That fast life didn't last long.

"I did 20 years in prison and I went to prison when I was 17 years old," he told me simply. At the age when many young people are preparing for college, Hughes instead became one of the 1 in 15 black men who are incarcerated (the figure for whites is 1 in 106). He was sentenced for two crimes, first-degree manslaughter and sale of narcotics. And mandatory sentencing laws meant he would spend his entire youth atoning for his crimes, while others are busy getting an education, working, starting families and contributing to their communities.

For too many people, incarceration is a formative experience, not a reformative one. Within five years of their release, more than 3 out of 4 ex-inmates are arrested again.

For students in the Bard program, the figure is much lower. Out of the 300 students who have graduated, only 4 percent have returned to prison.

These results happen partly because the program is so selective. There is an entrance exam. And like the one for regular applicants to Bard College, it requires writing multiple essays. Last year, out of 550 who applied, fewer than 100 were accepted.

Some prisoners with long sentences reapply year after year. Most BPI students, like Hughes, had always showed intellectual gifts, even if their previous education was spotty. "These are really college students. These aren't folks who were just picked at random to come sit in a classroom," said professor Robert Fullilove, a dean in public health at Columbia University who also teaches at BPI.

The second reason that Bard Prison Initiative students succeed, said Hughes, is because of relationships. "It's a supportive community, not only the professors, but the staff and the other inmates involved in the program. It's an environment where everyone is willing to help everyone," he said.

That network helps BPI alumni continue their education at bachelor's and graduate programs, including at Columbia and City University of New York. And it helps them find jobs — at social-service agencies, nonprofits, publishing companies and retail stores — and it supports them in starting their own businesses. Hughes, who was released last fall, is currently studying for his bachelor's at Baruch College.

Generally, ex-inmates struggle in both education and employment. There are about 6 million ex-prisoners in the U.S., or about 1 in every 15 men. Cumulatively, incarceration and felony conviction has been estimated to cost the U.S. economy between $57 billion and $65 billion a year in lost economic prospects.

But the biggest secret to BPI's success, according to every participant I talked with, is the rigorous liberal arts curriculum, which ranges from mathematics to philosophy to social science.

"They offered us a big variety of courses, and it's kind of rare because a lot of colleges in prison don't offer that," Hughes said. He was a bit dubious about studying the liberal arts at first. He had heard that it wasn't as practical as a vocational or technical degree. Plus, it was really difficult. He said his first semester was "brutal" because of all the time it took getting his writing up to speed. He'd be in study hall with the other students each night until 9:30 or 10.

But Hughes grew to love his studies. And, he said, he grew through his studies.

"We covered everything from the Cold War to present-day European politics," he said. "I studied a little bit of history, a little bit of economics, psychology, environmentalism, African politics, Asian politics. I even had a class on 13th century Mongols, which was a very intensive class. It was just an array of different interesting topics."

This was a young man who hadn't seen much of the world beyond his own neighborhood. He said his studies offered him a new perspective on the wider world and on his own past, and enabled him to "visualize" his future.

"I'm in a position, because of Bard, to be able to really see the world in the way that I should have seen it years ago," he said. "It's a little bit easier for me to navigate through society because of how Bard prepared me. That's what a liberal arts education can really do for a person such as myself, or anybody who is trying to find their own way in life."

College-in-prison programs used to be paid for by the federal Pell Grant. In 1994, President Bill Clinton made prisoners ineligible for this money, and enrollment collapsed. In February this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo publicly backed the idea of reinstating state aid for college in prison. He pointed specifically to the accomplishments of BPI graduates.

But he quickly dropped the plan after facing opposition in the state Legislature. Republican state Sen. Greg Ball launched a petition against Cuomo's plan, arguing that funding college for inmates was inappropriate at a time when families in the state were struggling to send their children to college.

On the other hand, some feel it's not just college in prison that's under siege, but the liberal arts in general. Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, has been a vocal champion of the liberal arts. At the Bard Prison Initiative graduation at Woodbourne Correctional Facility, he thanked BPI's participants for serving as an object lesson in the value of studying this way, and a reminder of "why we should fight for what we do."

"We live in a time where people don't really believe in education, and they don't believe in the liberal arts," he said. "They don't believe in studying something that isn't practical. Where in fact, everything you learn is unbelievably practical, because it allows you to negotiate life wherever you are."

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Once again it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. College-in-prison programs have all but collapsed nationwide. But this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to expand these programs in the state. NPR's Anya Kamenetz takes us inside the commencement ceremony of one program that is serving as a model.


ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: There's a toddler playing on the grass, students getting hugs from mom and dad, a band tuning up under a white tent and a bright blue sky full of fluffy white clouds. It's a lovely scene, one framed by locked gates and high fences topped with barbed wire. I walk up to one soon-to-be grad wearing a crisp button and gold colored tie.

I really like your outfit.

SEAN WILKINS: Thank you.

KAMENETZ: Sean Wilkins is surrounded by women - his wife, his grandmother, his aunt and his daughter.

SEAN WILKINS: I'm graduating, associates degree in liberal arts. I'm really excited about the whole affair. You know, I'm a guy who never even went to high school so, you know, this is a major event for me.

KAMENETZ: Wilkins grew up in Newburgh, New York. He went to prison when he was 21 for assault in the first degree. He has served 14 years of an 18 year sentence.

SEAN WILKINS: I'm just trying to prepare myself for successful reentry, you know, to just get myself geared up for society and to really just make it.

KAMENETZ: For the past 19 months, Wilkins has been studying hard. He took everything from drawing to the history of the civil rights movement.

SEAN WILKINS: You know, I had a lot of feelings that I didn't really know how to express very well. So, you know, now I have words for some of the ideas that I've always had.

KAMENETZ: Going back to school in his 30s, not to mention inside prison, wasn't always easy. But in a few minutes, he'll have his diploma from Bard College thanks to a small, highly selective program. Out of hundreds of inmates each year who take the essay exam to get in, only a few dozen are chosen. Wilkins' grandmother, Shirley Wilkins, says there's another secret to his success.

SHIRLEY WILKINS: The grace of God - if it weren't for prayer he wouldn't be here today. He might be in this place, but he wouldn't be here.

KAMENETZ: This place is Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Sullivan County, New York. It's the sight of the eleventh annual commencement of the Bard Prison Initiative, which enrolls 275 students at six prisons around New York State. Today, 36 men and women will graduate.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When you hear your name, you walk across the stage.

KAMENETZ: And it's time to begin. The students, now in black caps and gowns, line up, proceed on the isle and take their seats. Wilkins is in the second row and his family a few rows behind. The ceremony goes on like any with an invocation.

MAN: Let us pray. We come to give thanks.

KAMENETZ: And words from Max Kenner, who founded the program as an undergraduate at Bard College.

MAX KENNER: On behalf of all of Bard College, we are very proud to have a home here.

KAMENETZ: Until 1994, the Federal Pell Grant funded college for inmates. When that money was cut off, these initiatives had to rely on private donors, making them very rare and very small. Just a few dozen grant degrees around the countries.

KENNER: After 20 years since the demise of college in prisons national policy, perhaps decision makers have begun to tire of the cynicism dominating our approach to both criminal justice and education.

KAMENETZ: Recently, political leaders, mainly Democrats, have spoken publicly in favor of expanding access to college in prison. These include New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney who gives today's commencement address.

REPRESENTATIVE SEAN PATRICK MALONEY: You know, Bard graduates are managing businesses, pursuing advanced degrees they're starting careers in public service. Heck, we might have a member of Congress sitting here this morning. I mean, not for a while, don't get any ideas.

KAMENETZ: And finally, comes the moment everyone has been waiting for.

MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to present members of the class of 2014.

KAMENETZ: As each graduate crosses the stage, he is beaming.

MAN: Sean Wilkins.

KAMENETZ: There are fist bumps and cheers all around. Then everyone lines up for a buffet lunch of salmon cooked by fellow inmates. Nationwide, about half of those released from prison will return. Among Bard graduates, the figure is just four percent. And college in prison doesn't just change the lives of students like Sean Wilkins. Studies show it can help break a generational cycle for the children of prisoners as well. Wilkins says when he's back home, he wants to get an MBA.

SEAN WILKINS: There was one time I thought you had to be a rocket scientist to do this, you know? You just got to do your work.

KAMENETZ: Dynasty is his 11 year old daughter.

DYNASTY WILKINS: I feel excited and happy that he finally graduated. We've been waiting all year for it. So I'm finally happy it happened.

KAMENETZ: Looking down at his daughter, Sean Wilkins shakes his head and says, you're going to make me cry. Anya Kamentez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.