Daniel Karpowitz, author of College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration, answers questions from Emily Tate in this feature for Inside Higher Ed.
Q: In College in Prison, you say this has been your calling for the last 20 years or so. What, exactly, drew you into this work? Can you describe when and how you first became interested?
A: I long had a desire to have one foot in the academy and one foot outside of it. Throughout law school I mixed serious graduate work in the humanities and social sciences with an interest in constitutionalism and civil rights. It was [the University of] Chicago in the late ’90s, and I was introduced to the facts about mass incarceration by faculty and politicians connected to the university. Some of them suggested I work on a successful community-based alternative to incarceration back in my native Philadelphia. Later, after stints in the rhetoric department at [the University of California, Berkeley] and work on justice mapping in NYC, when I first got up to Bard, the dean introduced me to the person who was starting the college in prison project, and we really saw things eye to eye – that this was work that was first and foremost about a love of learning, and a belief that brains and talent are everywhere: it was passion for college and an unusual mix of democratic faith and high-status aspirations for students. The criminal justice intervention was a crucial but secondary concern. I felt at home at once.
Q: Do the college professors teach, evaluate or treat the students in prison differently from students in traditional classrooms, and if so, how? What is it like for you, personally, to teach college-level courses to prison inmates?
A: We and the faculty do a remarkable dance treating all students the same, while addressing the particular needs of students bursting with talent, brains and ambition, but who have so long been failed by their formal institutions of learning. Students get a lot of support and “remediation,” but with almost no formal course work segregated into a remedial or developmental track. It’s creative, challenging, rigorous liberal arts from day one, and the development of skills is woven into that along the way. It makes it more demanding, perhaps, for both faculty and students, but since everyone is so turned on, it seems to work. If anything, I’d say the standards have to be higher at the prison campus, since the graduates will always be scrutinized more in their future academic and professional lives. It’s not fair, perhaps, but it’s the reality. Beyond that, faculty, courses, curricula and standards are almost identical on Bard’s conventional and BPI campuses. In addition to BPI, I’ve taught at the law campus in Kathmandu, to rhetoric majors at Berkeley, and many times at Bard’s main campus. I know it’s sort of sacrilegious to say, but I find the similarities among students as important if not more so than their differences.