Mohammad Zainal Abedin
New York – Journalists were amazed to see how some of the American prisons change the behavior of those who were awarded long-term sentences for their crimes and establish them in the society as dignified people.
On December 3 a team of 14 New York-based overseas correspondents visited three correctional facilities in New York State. The journalists were divided into three groups and sent to three facilities named Fishkill, Woodbourne and Green Haven.
Laura Liebman, BPI Director of Development personally led the journalists to Fishkill while Jed Tucker, BPI director of Reentry and Megan Callaghan, BPI Director of College Operations, met the journalists at the gates of Woodbourne and Green Haven Facilities respectably.Monica Shiele, Hyun Bo Sim and Dapse Stavopolouse the Media Relation Officers of New York-based Foreign Media Center accompanied the journalists. Monica Shie accompanied the journalists to Fishkill Correctional Facility while Hyun Bo Sim and Dapse Stavopolouse went with the journalists to two other facilities.
Before their departure at 10 am for three facilities the journalists were briefed by the Ford Foundation officials at its Headquarters who highlighted how the dangerous and hopeless imprisoned inmates change their life through BPI (Bard Prison Initiative) and bring them back to the mainstream. A short film was also viewed by the journalist before their departure. Ford Foundation sponsored the tour of the journalists.
Fishkill Correctional Facility is a medium security Prison, located about 60 miles North of New York City where 1650 inmates are housed to serve their long sentences. Journalists were allowed to enter the facility that enabled them to attend a classroom and talk to some of the prisoners who are graduating from BARD College inside the facility.
Fishkill Correctional Facility offers some very positive and unique programs, including higher education that transform the behavior and psyche of the inmates and help them assimilate to and socialise with the mainstream in a dignified way when they are released from prison.
Journalists were allowed to attend a class where a teacher was delivering lectures on the origin of species when all the 15 convicts-turned students wearing civilian dress of their choice were seen attentively listening to their teacher. They were found lively and spontaneous and seen asking questions on the topic.
After visiting the classroom journalists were taken to the BARD College Library, which was rich with books on philosophy, Religion, Social Science, Natural Science & Mathematics, Technology (Applied Science), Arts (Fine Arts), Literature, Biography & History. Here the journalists had free and frank exchange of views with three inmates named Danny Contreras, Glenn Rodriguez and Lawrence Dotson who are graduating at Fishkill.
At one point journalists wanted to get the opinions of Daniel Conteras, Glenn and Datson Lawence how they were transformed at Fishkill Correctional Facility.
Daniel Conteras said, I think nothing, but positive. Now I know what I can do and what I cannot do. I want to look the future.
Glenn Rodriguez (41), who was in all the three facilities of BPI, almost finishes his 25-year sentence. He said BPI transformed my life. We were in negative, now we are in positive side. For next two years I will do better. As a profession, he likes teaching the best. I enjoy challenges, he opined.
Datson Lawence (42) entered jail at the age of 17. He said, BPI helped me to understand life. It helps me to change and transform me.
They informed another fascinating aspect of American jail that the inmates are allowed to marry if their records inside the jail are positive and appreciable. Daniel Conteras got married eight years ago and the couple has a kid. On the other hand, Datson Lawence was married 10 years ago, but he doesn’t have any child yet. Prisoners are allowed to get their wives inside the jail for 5.5 hours (from 9AM to 2.30PM) on weekends.
All the three identically narrated how the BARD College education program transforms their psyche, emotion and behavior. They acknowledged, BARD College opened a new horizon before them and they are confident after their release they will be able to return to their family and neighborhood with dignity. They desire to establish them as good people and hope to help other people when they are released.
The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) that began its journey in 1999 creates the opportunity for incarcerated men and women to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentences. Currently operating in six prisons across New York State, BPI’s academic programs engage students in liberal study and end with associate and bachelor’s degrees from Bard. It currently enrolls about 300 students over 60 courses each semester in humanities, sciences, and arts.
These transformed people discover new strength and direction, often fundamentally rethinking their relationship to themselves, their communities, and the world in which they live.
Returning home with confidence and hope, participants are able to find and hold satisfying jobs in a range of fields. Some go directly to work in the private sector or social services, while others pursue further education, enrolling in colleges and universities. Some have chosen to work in human service organizations, serving people with AIDS, or becoming professional counselors for residents the in city-based alternatives to incarceration. Several alumni have worked their way up to management positions in an innovative, for-profit electronics recycling company. Other graduates have continued their education, earning scholarships and working toward additional academic and professional degrees.
Mohammad Zainal Abedin