Bard College professor Ellen Lagemann discussed her efforts to help hundreds of men and women obtain college degrees from prison at a Trumbull Master’s Tea Tuesday afternoon.
Lagemann explained her work on the Bard Prison Initiative — a project that allows inmates to pursue an undergraduate degree from Bard while serving time in prison — and addressed the causes and consequences of mass incarceration before an audience of roughly 30 students. She said prison education programs can lower the number of convicts who become repeat offenders.
“Rather than change laws, change attitudes,” Lagemann said.
The reasons why people commit crimes are still unknown, Lagemann said, but she believes that incarceration and crime are not directly linked, since crime rates and incarceration rates differ significantly. Since 2008, the number of individuals imprisoned in the United States has fallen because of budget constraints rather than because of a decrease in the crime rate, she added.
While most prisoner rehabilitation programs have a failure rate of over 65 percent, she said, roughly 4 percent of the Bard Prison Initiative participants have returned to prison. Prisoners are admitted to the Bard Prison Initiative through a competitive application process, she said. She said she believes that education is effective as a long-term solution to mass incarceration.
Lagemann said she thinks that race and politics play a significant role in mass incarceration. A large number of the inmates she has met have been African American, a phenomenon that she thinks resulted from resentment toward the black community after the Civil Rights movement.
“Mass incarceration is undermining democracy in the U.S.A.,” she said.
Lagemann also discussed her upcoming book about the Bard Prison Initiative, entitled “America Imprisoned: the Causes and Consequences of Mass Incarceration.” She chose to title the book “America Imprisoned” because citizens of the United States pay for the 2.2 million imprisoned Americans with their taxes, so the incarcerated are a burden on each taxpayer, she said. The massive amount of funding is comparable to the amount the government spent on the war in Afghanistan, Lagemann said, adding that as the government pays to support the incarcerated it cuts funding for other programs, such as education.
George Chochos DIV ’16, a former participant of the Bard Prison Initiative, said in an interview with the News that the Bard Prison Initiative was often a more rigorous academic program than the Bard College curriculum. Through the program, he said he learned important skills such as an ability to think critically.
Will Portman ’14 said he appreciated the initiative because it has a “tremendous” impact on many people’s lives.
Jessica Liang ’17 said she found the talk insightful because Lagemann seemed passionate about the subject.
The Bard Prison Initiative currently enrolls 215 students and offers them 50 courses.