Earlier this month, I went to New York State’s Woodbourne Correctional Facility to accept the John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service from Bard College and to deliver a brief commencement address to incarcerated graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative.
Bard’s program is one of the few privately supported prison education programs in the country (the New York Times recently discussed a similar program at Sing Sing).
Bard started the program after the government cut off funding for prison education programs in the mid-1990s.
Bard has awarded liberal arts associates’ and bachelors’ degrees to nearly 200 men and women inside three long-term maximum security prisons and two transitional, medium-security prisons (Woodbourne is medium security).
None of these graduates—not one—has returned to prison after being paroled.
Why me, why there, and why discuss it here? Participants in this program started an organic garden and are growing food for the prison with the surplus going to local food banks.
In my speech, I said:
“John Dewey was a passionate champion of liberal democracy.”
“Dewey argued that education is good for individuals, but that it also has an important social purpose—that of encouraging students to become active and effective members of a democratic society….”
“In growing a garden and producing food for yourselves and for others under these particular and peculiar circumstances, you are carrying out John Dewey’s ideals better than he ever could have imagined.”
I was not kidding when I said that no award has ever meant so much to me. It was a privilege to be there.