Bard Prison Initiative
January 26, 2015
Saturday, I had a very memorable experience.
Last summer, on a visit to Eastern Correctional Institution up in Napanoch, I was introduced to prisoners who were enrolled in college – – yes, real college ! – – and was very impressed with the program. These inmates invited me to be the commencement speaker at their graduation. I was moved and grateful, and happily accepted.
This remarkable college program, all taking place behind bars, is called the Bard Prison Initiative, and has been up and effectively running at six of New York States’ prisons, as well as in six other states. The radiant success of this college program is due to daring leadership by Bard College, Holy Cross College at Notre Dame, Indiana, and the New York Department of Corrections. Bravo to all of them!
Special congratulations to the class of 2015, my fifty-three “classmates,” since I was privileged to receive an honorary degree Saturday, who successfully completed this rigorous college education in an atmosphere many would consider depressive, degrading, and oppressive.
As was so brilliantly evident in the joy of the graduates, the pride of family and friends, the satisfaction of devoted faculty, the smiles of the correction administrators and officers, and, especially, in the splendid address by three of the students, this program is a real light in the darkness.
The prison officials, two Holy Cross brothers, and some of the dedicated Bard College faculty with whom I chatted observed that one very high common characteristic of our prison population in that most have had very poor education, the majority never completing high school, to say nothing about college.
Speaker after speaker, from the President of Bard College, Dr. Leon Botstein, to the director of the Bard Prison Initiative, Max Kenner, to Superintendent William Lee and State Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci, Holy Cross Brother Jesus Alonso, and, most dramatically, the three student speakers, were so clear: a solid education is perhaps the most valuable gift we can (and must) provide our young people. Better schools mean less poverty, violence, crime . . . and prisons!
We Catholics have known this for a long time. That’s why we sponsor, as one of our essential ministries, given us by Jesus Himself, the largest private education system in the world…and what many consider the best.
This is Catholic Schools Week! My deep gratitude to our parents, people, teachers, principals, volunteers, priests, sisters, brothers, and benefactors who are the heart, muscle, mind, and wallet of our magnificent system.
What’s imperative, as Saturday taught me, is that our youth stay in school through high school. You know our numbers: 97% of the children who enter kindergarten in one of our catholic schools persevere through high school graduation, and 95% of them go on to college! As one of the prison officials told me, “You won’t meet many, if any, alumni of a Catholic school here in jail!”
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: you want to put a dent in drugs, unemployment, crime, violence, poverty, broken families and homeless, hungry people? Of course you do! Well, help us help our Catholic schools stay strong, affordable, accessible . . . and full!
For anyone still with me, here’s the text of my commencement address at Eastern Correctional facility last Saturday:
January 24, 2015
Bard College/ Eastern Correctional Institution
My fellow college graduates, congratulations!
Are we ever proud of you!
Dr. Leon Botstein, Max Kenner, professors, staff of Bard College, congratulations to you as well. You talk about an example of daring, innovative educational initiatives! You are a sterling example for all of us, and, thanks for that.
Superintendent Lee and Acting Commissioner Annuci, and other officials from the State Department of Corrections, and staff here at Eastern Correctional, hats off to you for the cooperation and support so obviously necessary for this extraordinary educational endeavor to succeed.
It’s a day of rejoicing for all of us – – family, friends, Bard College, Eastern Correctional, the whole community … but a moment of rejoicing and accomplishment especially for our graduates, and it’s to you I want especially to address a few words.
Gentlemen, graduates, alumni, as proud as we are of your degree, of the initials behind your name, we are even more proud of the person who is to receive the diploma, the name before the initials, B.A.
I salute you this graduation morning because you have learned not only the lessons of books, library, classroom, and professors, but the most sublime lesson of them all: that the essence of life, the core of living, is found within the human person, not without.
The within vs. the without
The inside vs. the outside
The substance vs. the superficial
The interior vs. the exterior
Yes, graduates, you know from the “school of hard knocks” and from the excellent college education you have just bravely completed here that there is a tension, a tug – of – war in life between the within and the without.
Inside is the mind, the heart, the soul; in our interior life we locate reason, thinking, loving; we find character, value and virtue; and we nurture, strengthen, and develop this interior life by study, reasoning, solid reading, questioning, wondering, education, and, for those of us who dare to call ourselves believers, prayer, for the Lord has told us He dwells within the heart and soul of the believer.
Outside … not as substantial, for “out-there” tends to emphasize the superfical over the substantial; urges rather than values; impulsive decisions, not thoughtful, rational discernment; the immediate over the lasting; the passing rather than the eternal.
You, my brother college graduates, have chosen the interior over the exterior, the within rather than the without, thus assuring us that you have gained not only some knowledge, but also a lot of wisdom.
This victory of the inside over the outside is worth celebrating for any college alumnus, but with you, gentlemen, it is nothing less than heroic.
Because you have the terribly strong temptation – – because of your past, because of your errors, because of your record, because so many have told you that you are losers and huge disappointments, and because you are locked up, – – you gentlemen have the strong pressure to ignore the reality, depth, value, dare and dream of the interior life, and let the urges, impulses, grievances, and presumed determinism of the exterior life dominate you.
To that temptation you graduates have replied, no!
To those who think that human fate is determined, that a change in life’s direction is impossible, that a situation like a prison, that can lead to hopelessness and further degradation, that such a plight makes intellectual growth, a search for wisdom, a desire to improve, and a cultivation of the life within impossible, I say, “Let them come to Eastern Correctional! Let them see Bard College at work in these walls!”
Yes, we celebrate your graduation! But what we really toast is the triumph of the:
within over the without,
reason over impulse
the soul over the body
hope over despair
mind over matter
the human spirit over the law of the jungle.
And for that, graduates, I say, congratulations. . . . and thank you, because not only do you here inside need to learn that, but so do all of us outside. God bless you!