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My Foray Into Prison Academia

December 20, 2017

 

I was once an ardent non-believer in higher education in prison.  I always believed my tax dollars should be put to better use. But that was before I was on this side of the barbed wire.  Now I recognize the importance and need for college for incarcerated persons.

 

Coming into prison with an education is not an asset, it is actually a hindrance. I was extremely fortunate to have obtained my BS and MS degrees before I started engaging in illicit acts.  I'm very proud of my degrees; no one can take them away from me.  But, stupid me, I had my parents send my Bachelors transcript to 'paradise'.  This was a horrible mistake on my part.  If I knew then what I know now, I would have simply sent my high school transcript.  Because of my education, I was not entitled to take courses through one of the two prison colleges on campus.  Because I have degrees, I was not entitled to take a vocation.  My crimes were not drug related so I was not entitled to ASAT (Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment certification) Because I have a probation violation, I was not cleared to work in outside facilities.  My merit was taken; I may have been able to leave in November of 201 if I made my merit board.  

 

I was devastated.  I cried, screamed, and bitched to anyone who would listen.  Then one of my unit mates told me about Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), and my whole outlook on this miserable experience called incarceration changed- at least a little.  

 

Bard is a small liberal arts college in Dutchess County NY.  Both Bard and BPI are highly selective in the applicants they choose.  BPI offers an Associates degree in Liberal Arts.  Applicants must pass a written essay, which involves critical thinking and analysis of texts. If applicant essays are selected, applicants then move on to the interview phase of the process.

 

I sent an application explaining my educational background-thinking there was no way they would ever let me apply.  I even sent a note to Joe Vallese, Bards Academic Advisor / liaison at the facility, (and a truly kindhearted man) explaining my situation. 

 

He sent me back an application with my name on it.

 

I was not optimistic when I went for the writing analysis.  I walked out feeling emotionally spent.  I had not engaged in critical thinking analysis of texts since 1994.  Then I heard that for each spot there are 10 applicants.  I thought, I'm applying to an Ivy League institution, while in an institution.

This is what my life had become.

 

Upon learning I was selected for the interview, I started to get excited, and nervous.  I went into the interview full of optimism thinking there was no way in hell they would accept me, first, because of my degrees, and second, because of my release date.  I was brutally honest with the interviewers and let them know this.  Lying and deceit brought me to prison, and I vowed I would no longer lie.

 

I received the shock of my life when I received an acceptance letter from BPI.  They were unable to offer me a slot into their Associates Degree program, but they were interested in having me become involved with the college.  My involvement would consist of taking an upper level elective and I would be trained as a BPI writing fellow. I almost cried.  I was so excited.  Finally something good was happening in hell.

 

The elective I am enrolled in is not easy by any means.  I am challenged every week.  It involves critical analyses of readings (about 150 pages a week) I greatly admire my classmates.  There are only three of us enrolled in the course, entitled 'Race, Religion and Nation', taught by the brilliant Professor Rosemary Corbett.

 

Unfortunately, I am not being trained as a writing fellow because of my relatively short sentence.  I made my October, 2017 parole board and will be released early in the new year.  

 

My short sentence puts me at a disadvantage as I am not able to complete training necessary to become a BPI writing fellow.  It also puts me at a disadvantage as I am unable to pursue and complete other trainings. Not that I have a right to complain.  I don't want to appear a spoiled brat.  I am just trying to say, a short sentence limits a persons opportunities while incarcerated.  

 

I mentioned Joe already, but I would also like to mention Ted Baker, who is the Re-entry Director for BPI, and Madeleine, who is another Academic Advisor.  I cannot thank these three individuals enough for their continuous support during this past semester. 

 

What is so great about these remarkable people is that they treat us like students and as people.  We aren't treated as inmates and this is so refreshing.

 

I guess now is a good time to say THANK YOU to all of them.  

 

I look forward to attending alumni events and forever being a part of the BPI family.  The Bard experience has given me a sense of pride. My 'Mojo' is back,and I am truly grateful for the phenomenal opportunity.

 

To all my fellow inmates, take advantage of any and all educational opportunities offered to you while incarcerated.  Not only will you get an education, but your time will fly by!

 

I was once an ardent non-believer in higher education in prison.  I always believed my tax dollars should be put to better use. But that was before I was on this side of the barbed wire.  Now I recognize the importance and need for college for incarcerated persons.

 

 

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