You wouldn’t think that men sentenced to a maximum-security prison would be interested in studying American Colonial History, now would you?

But for the past three years, MIT’s Craig Wilder has been working with inmates at medium- and maximum-security prisons in upstate New York through the privately funded Bard Prison Initiative. And the “street-smart, funny, sarcastic men,” he says, are extraordinary students.

“One thing I love is that the guys show up to class really prepared and enjoy wrestling with you intellectually. The lectures I give are as intense as any lecture I give at MIT.”

Inmates are earning associate and bachelor degrees through New York’s elite Bard College, whose liberal arts curriculum is being taught inside five New York prisons. Two hundred men and women participate in this program, where only one in 10 is accepted on the basis of essays, test scores, transcripts, and GEDs, if they didn’t finish high school.

Prisoners study English literature, sociology, philosophy, or theology. Maybe they’ll read a book by W.E.B. DuBois or perhaps a biography of Albert Einstein. The day inmates began discussing Modern European Christian Philosophy, Wilder says, laughing, “I’m thinking, ‘Where is this coming from?’ But it was coming from the classes they were taking, and the books they were reading.

“Their studies don’t end when the class ends,” he says of the inmates who spend up to six hours a night studying. “They go back to their cells, to the cafeteria, to the yard, and talk about ideas. They become a community of scholars within the prison.”

Why study?

For some prisoners, studying is something to do. For others, it’s an intellectual escape.

One inmate reportedly said that he wanted a college education because just learning a trade would give him skills to get a job but not skills to have a life. Another said he wanted his son
to have a father figure who was more than a prisoner; while another added that he was eager for a chance to start over in life. “Everyone has a different reason for participating,” says Wilder, who was raised in New York’s inner city and “absolutely” identifies with the men.

“These are the guys from my (former) neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “I’ve actually seen men in the prisons, who I know, or who I’ve seen before in New York.

“I was a first-generation college student,” he says. “I walked into college from a low-income inner-city family with a single Mom who worked two jobs. For me, college was the one chance to change that narrative. And I think it’s the same for many of them.”

One of the most extraordinary moments of his life as an academic, Wilder says, was in 2008 when he gave the commencement address at Eastern State Penitentiary, a maximum-security facility.

“I walked to the podium and looked down at the men with caps and gowns over their prison uniforms, and looked into their faces, and into the faces of their families, and felt these guys are actually trying to change their lives. And it’s not about reform. It’s not about proving anything to anyone. It’s just for them. And for their families. And it was so empowering.”

Good investment

Inmates who earn degrees are much less likely to commit crimes when they are released, Wilder says.

“The recidivism rates decimate. They go down from about 70 percent to less than 10 percent. It’s an extraordinarily good investment.

“If there’s anything socially dangerous about American prisons, it’s that the distance between the people who are incarcerated in the United States and the rest of us has grown far too broad,” he says.

“These are real people. These are men with extraordinarily varied life experiences and
backgrounds, but the one thing they have in common, and certainly have in common with me, is an interest in a set of ideas. They had the courage to actually reach out and say, ‘Could you help us pursue this?’ And my answer had to be yes.”

“To actually see these guys rediscover that love of learning, that trust in education, and that passion for ideas is great.”