Three years ago, after teaching Chinese to college students and businesspeople, I took on a new group of students: prisoners. I became a language instructor at a maximum security prison for men in upstate New York through a program that allows inmates to earn college credits, free of charge, while serving their sentences.
I had never stepped foot in a prison and had no idea what my students would be like. Prison security forbade me from using PowerPoint slides or the Internet in my classroom. For teachers in the Bard Prison Initiative, our resources are severely limited. And yet, BPI students have earned nearly 350 college degrees, and they are far less likely to return to prison than most convicts. While more than half of all U.S. prisoners are arrested again within three years of their release, less than 4 percent of BPI students have returned to prison since the program started in 1999.
Some argue that providing prisoners with free education is unfair, since many law-abiding people struggle to pay for college. These arguments led Congress to eliminate federal funding for college education in prisons in 1994 (a decision that some legislators and the Obama administration are trying to reverse). But my experience teaching Chinese through BPI, which is funded through private donations, shows how rehabilitative these programs can be for prisoners. When we educate inmates, it inspires them to improve their lives and makes society safer for everyone.
Bard began offering Mandarin classes at Eastern Correctional Facility after a group of prisoners requested them. Recognizing that China is playing an increasingly important role in business and global politics, the students wanted to know more about the country and its language. They wanted to read original Chinese classics, learn traditional Chinese philosophy and challenge themselves to pick up a difficult language.
The 26 students had reached intermediate-low proficiency when I began teaching the two Mandarin classes. At that level, teachers usually instruct students to improve proficiency by watching Chinese TV or online videos, spending time in Chinatown, or conversing with a Chinese friend. Of course, none of those resources are available to BPI students. But Bard College requires that prison classes maintain the same fast pace as regular college courses. For a while, I questioned whether my students would continue. Then I asked them to start writing essays, and I was struck by the thoughtful ideas they produced in Chinese.
I allowed my students to write about whatever topics inspired them. For many, that topic was their families. In a classroom, writing in a foreign language, they found a safe space to reflect on themselves and their futures. Many wrote about their relationships with their children and the desire to provide them a better life. One such essay moved me to tears, and I still keep it today:
I have many identities: son, brother, friend, and the like. But the most important one is Dad.
My daughter is just 8 years old – I don’t know how she is so pretty. Though her teeth are a bit crooked, her smile is big and adorable.
Every time she comes to see me, she runs to give me hugs and a lot of kisses, making my heart so happy. Our time together is very special, because it is too little.
We try to do as many activities as possible: drawing, reading, playing games. My favorite is doing math. She is a second-grader now. Her teacher hasn’t taught her to do subtraction. I taught her, which made me very happy, because she is very smart and learns very fast.
Our time is happy and special, but is also sad, because both of us know it will soon be over. I can’t see her until a couple of months later. But as soon as I think of her smile, I smile. I am waiting. She will come again soon.
With simple, touching sentences, this student showed the deep love between his child and himself. The language class had given him a new voice to speak his heart.
Education encourages inmates to connect with their families, showing relatives their determination to improve their lives. The positive feedback from their families then encourages prisoners to stay on the right track. This virtuous circle fuels positive outcomes after prisoners are released. Studies show that inmates who maintain close contact with their families in prison are more likely to succeed after they complete their sentences and are less likely to be incarcerated again.
Often the motivation came from their children, proving that the effect of prison education programs can filter through generations. As one student said, “What really motivates me are my kids. I start wondering what I am gonna do for them. What kind of example I am gonna be for them. [My son] even told me that I am famous [for having a bachelor’s degree]. That is the feeling that nothing in the world could take away from me.”
Studying a foreign culture also gave my students a way to explore the world outside the prison walls and inspired them to think about their place in it. I integrated discussions about Chinese culture, society and people into our language lessons. One day, I started a class by teaching students the Chinese words for “leftover women/men” (referring to people in their late 20s or older who are not married). That prompted discussions about Chinese and American views of marriage and the legitimacy of giving either adult children or society at large the responsibility of taking care of aged parents. These cultural discussions make students aware of different worldviews and give them a comfortable place to reflect on their own lives and futures.
As one BPI history student said in an NPR story, gaining new perspectives on the world inspires people to change their lives. Donnell Hughes was a drug dealer serving a 20-year sentence when he started taking BPI’s courses, providing a window to the larger world beyond his Bronx neighborhood and an opportunity to reimagine his future. “It’s a little bit easier for me to navigate through society because of how Bard prepared me,” Hughes told NPR. “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.”
Education gives BPI students a new identity. Instead of being “prisoners,” they are “students,” people destined to improve society. Education also gives them a unique space inside prison walls, where respect, trust, knowledge and intelligence reign. As students in that environment, they can redefine their lives. It inspires them to be better people. As one BPI student said: “At this point of my life, how I performed in the program, I thought that was how I would measure myself as a human being.”
BPI’s exceptionally low recidivism rate may be influenced partly by its selectivity. Applicants have to pass a written exam and personal interview to be admitted, and ultimately, 15 percent to 20 percent of applicants are accepted. But we know the education itself has a transformative effect. A 2013 federal report affirmed that, “on average, inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who did not.”
I treated my BPI students the same way I treated other students. BPI instructors don’t ask students what crimes they have committed or the length of their sentences. We ask them what they want to learn and what they plan to achieve. The experience provided me with an education, too. Consumed with grading exams and creating lessons, teachers can lose sight of their goals. But when you see men confined to lives behind bars suddenly inspired by life outside of it, you realize the true impact of your work. With the potential to reduce the prison recidivism rate from 50 percent to four percent, you can’t help but acknowledge the power of education.
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