As Kentucky grapples with jail overcrowding, spiraling incarceration costs, and debates over criminal justice reform, KET recently convened a public conversation about what states can do to rehabilitate offenders and enable them to reenter society as productive citizens.
KET’s Renee Shaw moderated two panel discussions that featured Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley and Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Derrick Ramsey. The event also included acclaimed filmmaker Lynn Novick and three people featured in her forthcoming documentary for PBS, College Behind Bars.
“We felt throughout that this was a film that would help us consider two important questions,” Novick told the audience at Louisville’s Speed Museum. “What is prison for, and who in our country has access to education?”
The documentary details the work of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that offers tuition-free associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in six New York state prisons for men and women. Novick is on a national tour to share previews of her film and to foster community dialogs about how education can help rehabilitate those convicted of crimes.
College classes offered to prison inmates used to be fairly common across America. But the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 banned incarcerated individuals from receiving federal Pell Grants that help poor students pay for college. Without that source of funding, most inmates could no longer afford their tuition costs, which meant the colleges offering those classes lost revenue. Soon most of those learning opportunities disappeared.
“The single, most viscerally punitive, in our view, nasty provision in that crime bill, which had lots of bad characteristics, was the elimination of college access,” said Max Kenner at the Louisville screening. Kenner is now the executive director of BPI, but in the late 1990s he was an undergraduate student Bard College, a private, liberal arts school in upstate New York.
That policy change inspired Kenner to work with fellow students, school administrators, and New York correctional officials to create the Bard Prison Initiative. The tuition-free program launched as a pilot project in 2001 and granted its first bachelor’s degrees in 2008. The initiative is funded largely through grants and charitable contributions.
Unintended Consequences of ‘Tough on Crime’
The War Drugs in the 1980s followed by the federal crime bill in the 1990s solidified the “tough on crime” philosophy of criminal justice in America. Since then the number of incarcerated Americans has exploded to more than 2 million men, women, and juveniles. The United States now has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world.
As the number of inmates increased, so did the need for more prisons. And Kenner said that had a direct impact on public education in the U.S.
“All the money that the federal government and state governments… dedicated to build these prisons was money we took away from our state colleges and universities,” said Kenner in Louisville.
The prison boom also reached Kentucky, where the inmate population has increased 700 percent in the last five decades, according Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley. He said in 1970, the state housed 3,000 inmates at a cost of about $5 million. Today, with virtually the same overall crime rate as 50 years ago, Kentucky has 24,000 inmates and an incarceration budget of $650 million.
“We were growing at nearly quadruple the national average,” said Tilley.
Recent reforms have helped stem that growth and even reduce juvenile prison populations in the commonwealth, but Tilley said more must be done to address prison costs and overcrowding, and to prepare inmates for their return to society.
Traditional Classes in a Non-Traditional Setting
The Kentucky Community and Technical College system does offer one or two college-level courses a semester at selected prisons around the commonwealth. According to the Department of Corrections, inmates pay $35 for each course they take. Corrections officials say they hope to be able to partner with other state universities and expand the class offerings to more inmates in the future.
Candidates for the Bard Prison Initiative are chosen based on writing exercises and interviews with BPI faculty. The program does not consider the crime the person was convicted of in the selection process. More than 300 inmates across the six prisons are selected to enroll as full-time students every school year.
One of the student-inmates featured in College Behind Bars is Salih Israil, a prisoner at Eastern Correctional Facility, a men’s maximum-security prison about two hours north of New York City. Convicted of robbery and assault, Israil entered prison at the age of 19. In the documentary, he is working towards a bachelor’s degree in literature with an emphasis on the German language.
“It’s not a traditional school building, but we do traditional college work,” Israil says in the documentary.
Despite the challenges of prison life, the initiative has awarded nearly 550 tuition-free degrees to student-inmates since 2001. BPI also provides transitional services for alumni upon their release to help them find work, continue their education, and network with other program graduates on the outside.
So far BPI can boast a 2.5 percent recidivism rate among its graduates. Across the U.S., the average recidivism rate is almost 68 percent within three years of release, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
But the program is not without its critics. Kenner told the audience at the Speed Museum that he encounters many people who believe what BPI does to help inmates better themselves is morally wrong.
That sentiment plays out in one pivotal scene in the documentary between an inmate and her mother. Tamika Graham is serving time in a medium-security facility for women in Westchester County, N.Y., where she got an associate’s degree as a BPI student. On a rare visit to the prison, her mother argues with Tamika about why criminals should be allowed to get a college degree.
“All I know is that my daughter got a free diploma when I have to pay for my other kids to go to school,” says Tamika’s mother before storming out of the visiting room.
“A lot of people think the way my mother thinks,” Tamika says later in the documentary. “I made a mistake, and I learned from that mistake, and then I took advantage of the opportunities I could have. Just because I’m in prison doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to go to school, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to pick up a skill so I can work in a job somewhere doing something legal.”
Punishment or Rehabilitation
The philosophy of prison as punishment not rehabilitation continues to linger in America, even in an age when many states are pursing criminal justice reforms.
During the KET discussion Tilley described the environment he inherited upon becoming justice secretary in late 2015.
“We found a decades-long culture of retribution, a decades-long culture of attempting to do anything but rehabilitate those we should be serving,” the secretary said.
In 2017, state officials formed the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council to review Kentucky’s spiraling prison populations and suggest systemic changes to reduce that growth, lower incarceration costs, and maintain public safety. The panel offered 22 policy recommendations including limiting the use of monetary bail, increasing the felony theft threshold, expanding parole for elderly and medically frail convicts, and treating addiction like a health problem instead of a crime.
“These aren’t outlandish suggestions, these are evidence-based programs which are win-wins in criminal justice,” said Tilley. “They improve public safety at less cost and help the offender rehabilitate.”
The policy council estimated these changes would prevent nearly 80 percent of the state prison population growth in the coming years and save taxpayers nearly $340 million over the next decade. Yet, two years later, most of the recommendations remain unadopted, according to secretary.
As a former state representative himself, Tilley told the audience at the Speed Museum that he understands the difficult nature of approving some of these changes. But he said lawmakers can take comfort in knowing that other states like Texas and Georgia have safely and successfully implemented these ideas.
“We need some of those in the legislature who are standing in the way to come on board,” the secretary said. “I would say a vast majority would support the kind of reforms needed to safely reduce our [prison] population.”
‘Who Do You Want Living Beside You?’
Because more than 95 percent of all prisoners will eventually be released, criminal justice reform advocates say its crucial to rehabilitate inmates so they can be stable, productive, and successful citizens when they return to their communities.
Tilley said the state now provides more rehabilitation and education opportunities than ever before, but he also acknowledged that the offerings remain limited. He said inmates in 23 of Kentucky’s full-service jails have access to some type of rehabilitative services, mostly around substance abuse treatment.
In addition to the few college classes offered by KCTCS, offenders without a high school diploma can take free GED classes through Skills U, a program of the Kentucky Cabinet for Education and Workforce Development. Secretary Derrick Ramsey said his agency also offers a Justice to Journeyman apprenticeship program that enables certain inmates to become qualified in a trade skill they can use when they complete their prison sentences. Ramsey said post-release employment is a key component in reducing offender recidivism.
“If they do not have family support, if they do not have transportation, if they do not have a job, then more than likely within a couple years they’ll be returning [to jail],” he said at the KET event.
Ramsey and Tilley said they want to collaborate on more education-oriented programs for prisoners in the future, In addition to benefiting inmates, Ramsey said these initiatives can prepare offenders to fill some of the thousands of jobs currently available in the state. He said he’s encouraging his staff to be “disruptive as hell” in how they think about these issues.
“We’re not going to continue to do what we’ve done in the past because we know what the results are going to be,” Ramsey said at the Speed Museum. “So I’ve challenged my team to think outside of the box, think about ways in which we could assist people in their process in reentering back into society.”
“The question is who do you want living beside you?” Ramsey continued. “A person that we have in our facilities that we treat like a dog and think that they’re going to be healed … or a person that we can help and they come back and be contributors in our society.”
Do Inmates Deserve a Free Education?
Despite the confrontation with her mother, Tamika Graham holds fast to the idea that education should be available to everybody, especially inmates and others for whom a college degree may seem out of reach. She appeared at the KET event in Louisville to discuss her experiences with BPI.
“If a person that made a mistake because they came from an area where they had either no hope or they were in poverty… who else would be the best fit for a college education?” Graham said. “Someone who wants to go [to college] and you put them in there, you see magic happen.”
After serving a nine-year sentence, Graham was released in 2017 and found work as an advocate for education and criminal justice reform. She is also working towards a bachelor’s degree in public policy.
BPI alum Salih Israil also attended the Louisville discussion. He bristled at the question of whether inmates deserve access to an education.
“What’s the context for that?” he said. “To have the tools you need to have a basic quality of life somehow is something that someone should deserve… Who’s going to say you don’t deserve it?”
Israil completed his bachelor’s degree in 2009 and then took additional courses in computer science. Since being released from prison in 2015, he has consulted with BPI, worked as a data analyst, and most recently started his own company that builds mobile applications and databases for small start-up companies.
Documentary producer Lynn Novick contends the issue isn’t whether inmates deserve an education, but rather how can we provide them with an education as a means to better public safety, fairness, and human dignity. She told the Louisville audience that one BPI alumnus sums the matter up this way:
“He just said, ‘I don’t know if I can answer whether or not I deserve the education based on what I did to become incarcerated, but I can tell you what I plan to do with the education when I get out, which is to dedicate myself to making society better.'”
College Behind Bars is scheduled to air Nov. 25 and 26, 2019, on KET and PBS stations nationwide. Here is a preview of the documentary.