Trench Democracy in Criminal Justice #3: An Interview with Max Kenner
Dec 31, 2014
19 Min read time
This conversation is the ninth in the series, Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places. Innovative democratic professionals are recreating some of our most fundamental institutions, shaping new democratic practices and struggling against the sometimes profoundly counter-democratic tendencies of contemporary American institutions. While their work is always in progress, their experiences hold value for anyone interested in democracy’s future.
Max Kenner is the founder and executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program offering high quality liberal arts education across six New York state prisons. Incarcerated women and men who gain admissions to the highly selective program take courses equivalent to those offered on the main Bard campus and earn the same degrees. We talked recently about why Bard College does this work, its significance for both incarcerated and conventional students and for the faculty involved, and its long-term democratic implications. But first, we have a debate to watch, with Max Kenner narrating.
UVM vs. Bard College
A few weeks ago the debate team from the University of Vermont walks into the auditorium at Eastern Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Three of them, preppy, young.
Our guys are all in their 30s. Rodney came to prison as a 20-year-old doing 20 to life. Paul is not an obvious candidate for debate; he rarely speaks, but he is thriving in calculus. And Daryl is getting set to complete his associate’s degree. However electric the room, they all seem remarkably calm.
I am not.
Resolve: NATO should be immediately abolished. Our guys are arguing the negatives. They have not had access to the Internet for research or e-mail for professional advice, no debate camps. UVM’s team is ranked 14th in the world. After 45 minutes of arguing, it is over. UVM, one of the top programs on the planet. Our guys did their best.
And after some discussion, the judges reach a decision. The incarcerated Bard students had won.
Afterwards everyone shakes hands. When our students are alone they take stock. In the end the UVM team missed their golden opportunity. “What about Latvia?” Rodney says. “I mean how could they not mention Latvia.”
I have no idea what he is talking about. But there is no time for him to explain. The guards return to take them back to their other lives and their 8-by-11 cells.
Albert Dzur: What motivated you 15 years ago to start this educational work in prisons? There is a lot to worry about. Why prisons in particular?
Max Kenner: This was in the late 1990s. A few things happened at once, some of which were on purpose and some of which were just purely accidental. That was a time characterized by a deep and unsettling self-satisfaction among elites and the middle class, at least in New York City, where I am from and near where Bard is located. The rise of the NASDAQ, Dow 36,000, The End of History, the end of homelessness and crime, and all that. The Internet emerged; everyone was going to be rich and the problems of the past were gone. People actually believed this stuff. Even campus politics at the time, anti-sweatshop work for example, was focused on perceived problems elsewhere in the world, not here in the United States. So, I was interested in another side to that story.
I set out to learn something about the reality of American criminal justice and get to know the people working in the field. At the time, I thought I was already late to the party. I did not know that it would be another fifteen years before this work would be as fashionable as it is now. It seemed so pressing at the time. It was very obvious then in the late ‘90s that the incredible divestment we had made in education and social programs more broadly was not saving money but actually redirecting resources into systems of punishment and prisons in particular.
When I left New York City to go to college, to enroll at Bard, these issues were on my mind. At Bard I got the sense that I was dealing with an unusual place, a place where if you were entrepreneurial you could really do something. I got it in my head that the institution should have some relationship with the prisons surrounding it, having no idea what that might be. And then it took very little research to discover there was something that would not only be of real national significance that we could do but was also clearly within the mission of the college: offer educational opportunity to people in prison, to people least likely to have access to college. So we took a crack at it and luckily, somehow, miraculously, fifteen years later we’re still here.
AD: I want to dig a little bit more here. All may have been fine in Manhattan, but upstate NY was being buffeted by a retracting economy. So if you are interested in doing good, you could have done economic development work in nearby towns that were getting hard hit. But you chose prisons. What was it about the prison experience in particular that drew you in?
MK: It was the recognition, which is fairly common now, again, that the investment in criminal punishment, particularly when it came to how we approached young men of color, particularly from certain communities, was among the most important stories of this American generation. And that relates to how we responded to the relative successes and failures of the civil rights revolution and it relates to how we restructured the economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It relates to all these things. But it was also central to what the place of a college might be in American life. That was clearly on the table then and it is even more on the table now.
I was a lousy student in high school—I nearly dropped out of high school and barely graduated. After that I took some time off. Then when I went to college I was happier than I had ever been. Who saw that coming? So, in the work I do now, the idea that people can experience real intellectual development later in life comes very naturally and intuitively to me. Long before Bill de Blasio, it was fashionable among the social scientists to prioritize early education—what has evolved into “universal pre-K”—above all else. Now, I am all for it as social policy for a number of reasons. But the idea that this stuff is determinative is, to my mind, just baloney.
There is a sort of physics to the work: if the places in society that are worst off have outlets for people to become the best they can be, unexpected and profound things happen.
Anyhow, to your question “why prisons?”—and we can talk for a long time about what we think prisons are historically, and so on—really what is most important about our work has very little to do with criminal justice. Really what BPI does is to find a way to successfully engage precisely the kinds of people that colleges analogous to Bard either fail to reach or do not even try to work with. As an institution, BPI is much more about radically rethinking college access than it is about criminal justice, though obviously it also really transforms how we think about the prison once we are in there.
AD: I saw a video clip of a Bard commencement ceremony where a formerly incarcerated student got his degree and there was a lot of audience recognition, what I would call joyful support. There is something going on with BPI that really resonates with students; it is not just another exercise in community service.
MK: That particular video was shot the first time that had ever happened. Now it is a recurring thing at Bard, but it still is the loudest moment in the commencement ceremony.
AD: Explain that to me. What is going on there? Why is it loud?
MK: I think that for the Bard faculty, for the students that graduate, for the whole community, what BPI does, BPI’s existence, is symbolic of what is best about our college and our community. And that is not remotely to say that we are the best or we are the only thing that is good or great about that community. It is that all the values that we have—when we bring music education to different places, when we do the international work we do, the early colleges, and just the basic, traditional academic learning that we provide on campus—I think people look at BPI and see in it a testament that we believe our own bullshit. That the college is really sincere about the importance of this kind of education, that it should be available for everyone, and that a democratic society will have terrible difficulty without it.
AD: When you talk with faculty who are involved in the program, what do they tend to pick out as being particularly satisfying about their work?
MK: There are two or three things. First of all, the overwhelming response of people who teach for us—and these are people who are used to teaching at Bard or other fancy institutions—is just how fulfilling the work is. Frankly, if you are me and you are running this program you have to develop a certain skepticism about this if for no other reason than that you hear it all the time. But the vast majority of the praise is sincere and it comes from the sense that, first of all, there is palpably something at stake for these students in that classroom. And most people who become professors had that feeling themselves at some time. Then they started teaching and the people they teach, if they feel that way at all, it is certainly a lot less obvious. Also, people who teach on college campuses, especially private institutions or elite institutions, get antsy about how much of their life they are dedicating to a relatively small demographic. So when faculty go to places that are as different from what they are used to as a prison and teach entirely different students who also find meaning and fulfillment in their work, it reminds them of the meaning they found in that work and convinced them to go into this field to begin with.
AD: Let us change tack and talk about the impact of BPI on the prisons. The sociologist Erving Goffman called prisons “total institutions” because of the ways they are sealed off and become their own separate worlds. I wonder if you see the program as opening these worlds up a bit.
MK: I do not think there is any doubt. There is a question of scale. The idea of the “total institution” has been controversial within the academy and people are sensitive about the term. I do not freak out about it. I think it is a reasonable way of describing what goes on and what makes prisons different than other institutions. That is fine. But, the more isolated the people within them are, the more someone who is not on staff, who is just walking through the door, can make a difference. When I started this work the prisons were much more closed than they are now, at least in New York. The period when I was introduced to the work was a real nadir. A handful of people in New York were running programs that were nice: poetry workshops and those sorts of things. I latched on to some of them, which is how I started to first get access. For those folks, every outside individual they got into the prison was a victory.
Today, we work on a very different scale. Getting outsiders into the prisons is de rigueur and the people we bring to them are highly qualified academics, professionals. Over time, I have become very skeptical about that older idea about the virtue of bringing outsiders in just because. But, that is convenient for me to say now, and I should not be too hypocritical. We benefit from working in a much better environment than the people struggling to work in prisons in the middle ‘90s. So, we have different and higher expectations than anyone could in those bad old days. But remembering what it was like then gives you a sense of the layers of the meaning of the work. That for some people who are in prison the personal interactions with individuals who are not part of the brass, who are not part of the hierarchy, can be as important as anything they learn in the classroom. That is not something we focus on, but it is probably true, some of the time.
But, much more important is the signal the program is sending to the entire prison population. If you are a guy who is bright, or might be bright, or thinks he is bright, and you are in the yard and have never finished school and you are not one of the hundred guys or however many guys who are enrolled at Bard at that prison, but you are just out there, you know that there is a path. It may be hard to get to but you know there is a path to something different. And you know that is true for your children. And you know that is true for how your children perceive you.
AD: You are talking about a kind of spillover or ripple effect of the program.
MK: That is exactly right. Inter-generationally, but also into the prison. Typically, we are in prisons of a little less than 1,000 people and where we have substantial programs we have roughly 100 people enrolled. The impact on that institution is much greater than just on those 100 people.
AD: Having the program inject an educational component into a prison—and not just any educational component but something of a really high quality—that must have institutional ramifications.
MK: We really do think about it in terms of institutional impact. That is the most important thing that we do. When we go into a prison—at any substantial scale—we change the sense of possibility and meaning throughout the entire institution, not just the trajectory of the lives of the people we work with.
AD: Have you heard this reflected in how corrections officers have talked about the program?
MK: Well officers are not supposed to say anything. There is no question that opportunities like the ones we provide make prisons safer. They make it a better place to do your job. There is just no question about that. You hear that from the people on the ground. You see that it in the studies produced by the RAND Corporation and the Bureau of Justice. That is an established fact and everybody knows it. It is evidenced by the very strong relationship we have built with the Departments of Correction in New York especially but also states across the country. The rhetoric that suggests that the people who work in and who run the prisons are opposed to anything good, they are just reactionary, etc.; that kind of talk might be common, it might be frequent, but it is as bigoted as it is uninformed and it is incorrect in my experience.
AD: Getting at this issue of BPI’s transformational possibilities, it is a sad irony a country committed to democratic values has a massive and profoundly undemocratic prison system. I wonder if the program addresses this civic deficit—giving back a sense that even though you have committed a crime we still recognize you as a member of the community. Do you see it that way?
MK: I could answer that question for a year. To us that is the big question. The answer is clearly “yes,” but let me count the ways. Just the act of going in affirms to people in prison that they are part of the community in a way that is unusual.
AD: Are you talking about prisoners going into the BPI program or to BPI going in to the prisons?
MK: The College going into prison, at least in the old days when nobody was doing this. Just making the effort was like, “Wow! That is a big deal.” More importantly, in terms of the academic program, in terms of the curriculum, convincing people who are not convinced of this already, convincing them that they have as much ownership over American history or the arts or math and the natural sciences as anybody else, that is a deeply civic thing to do. And that is really central to what we are doing: convincing folks that this is not something for somebody else but it is yours as much as anybody else’s. That is civic. Then there is the curriculum itself, which is oriented towards the humanities and the full breadth of liberal study. Not to mention the really fantastic academics who make up the faculty of the program.
Most concretely, the vast majority of our students go into the human services or they do advocacy after they are released from prison. They are working with people who are homeless, with youth at risk, people returning home from prison, people with HIV and AIDS, etc. They do God’s work, they do work that desperately needed to be done well, and they are highly qualified for it. The vast majority of our people are returning to the communities that send the most people to prison. And they do so with two qualities employers in those fields always want but virtually never come together: people who have really “been there” and have had first hand experience and are “authentic,” on the one hand, but who also have a really rigorous and unusual education.
AD: Do you have a theory of change in the back of your mind that reflects on the relationship of your program to the status of the United States as the world champion incarcerator?
MK: I have to admit, just the phrase theory of change makes me shiver. It makes me very uncomfortable. Why are we expected to have something so diagnostic as that in order to treat people with common decency?
Also, I do not have an elevator pitch, but I do think, even if we were suddenly stop being the world champion incarcerator, as you call us, I am not ready to completely roll this particular generation that has been most impacted by all this under the bus. As someone who grew up in New York City at that moment in time, that is really important to me. Particularly when you think about it in the context of the civil rights movement. That matters to me.
I am not inclined to do this, but if you do think of BPI in this context rather than in that of the landscape of higher education, one can imagine us as a kind of Highlander school in the era of mass incarceration. We are not training people just to be civic advocates in one way or another, of course. Not by any stretch. We are thrilled when alumni go into business, or when they go into the arts, or the ministry or what have you. But there is a sort of physics to the work: if you ensure that the places in society that are worst off have outlets for people to become the best they can be, unexpected and profound things can happen.
When we look at the failures of higher education today we need to create as many outlets as possible for people to realize their own strengths and abilities. Admission to BPI in the prisons is competitive, which in my tiny little field is controversial. People who are committed to this work often think it should be open admission—how could you turn anybody away? That is not our approach. We do not think we change people. We think people change on their own accord—they come to us, and we give them a vehicle to learn something new. As we re-structure higher education, which is inevitable over the next generation, we want to create as many outlets for people to express or exercise that change they have already created themselves. Some people need more challenging education earlier than we typically provide it, and some benefit from it later. That is what BPI does: it creates opportunities for people later in life to work hard to achieve real fulfillment, to get sense of the breadth of one’s own curiosity, to engage with the world in an entirely different way. And, it happens that we do this with the people who the last generation of America’s best social scientists called “super predators” and “hopeless.”
To see them succeed in the way that they do is both the most discouraging and the most exhilarating thing about the work. To think about what people are capable of if educators take them seriously.
AD: You spoke at the outset about how prison attracted you as one of the big stories of your generation. That is no doubt true, but it is also the case that mass incarceration has never been front-page news. I wonder if you are trying in some way to tell the story of how much human potential is being lost through mass incarceration. Your work is like a mirror to the general society: do you, America, really want to do this to so many of your citizens?
MK: I think in some ways that is the same question you asked when you asked, “Why does the Bard community react the way it does when somebody walks across that stage?” What does this work symbolize? One thing we have really found is just how symbolically rich the work we do is to so many people in so many different ways.
You are right. I was attracted to the problems of mass incarceration—we did not call it that, people had just started calling it the last thing it was called, which was the prison industrial complex, back in the late ‘90s. I was attracted to that, but to me the crises of mass incarceration and the crises of educational access cannot be untangled. So when we hold that mirror up to anybody who is willing to look at it, we are saying, yes this thing—the prison—is costly and ugly and it is ineffective and just so reminiscent of everything that has ever been wrong about us, that is all true. But it is also a mirror that shows how much we have given up on what is best about us. And that is reflected in our educational system. America invented liberal education. All these other developing countries, East and South East Asia, they are desperate for liberal education. And the United States has turned around and is running away from it. To me that is as powerful as anything we can say about mass incarceration.Research on this project was done in partnership with the Kettering Foundation. Images provided by Albert Dzur and Max Kenner.
December 31, 2014
19 Min read time