Can Education Help End Mass Incarceration?

Faculty and students come together to discuss the problem of mass incarceration and how education is one powerful way to alleviate it

April 26, 2016

While there has been growing awareness around the problem of mass incarceration in the United States, the fact remains that one in four of the world’s prisoners is locked up within our borders. And even as crime rates have dropped, the imprisoned population up has climbed. Today, 3 million Americans are behind bars—five times the number in the 1970s.

Experts like Earnest Drucker in the Department of Epidemiology agree that this degree of incarceration is unproductive and unsustainable. At a recent Mailman School symposium on reforming the criminal justice system, he and others shared findings on the consequences of imprisonment and discussed ways to alleviate them—including through education.


One example is the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), which since 1999 has offered incarcerated individuals the opportunity to earn a degree from Bard College, both to improve their opportunities in life and serve as positive role models in their communities.

“Some of the best minds in the community are not in the community,” said Robert Fullilove, a senior advisor to BPI and associate dean of Community and Minority Affairs at Mailman. “They're doing 20- to 30-year bids in places where they have limited opportunity to impact what’s going on in community life.”

“If you’re good enough to be in class with a Columbia professor, if you’re good enough to challenge me on my thinking and everything I want to do as a teacher," said Fullilove, speaking as he would to his imprisoned students, “what would the community that you came from be like if you were there instead of here?”


Since 2013, more than 700 men and women have enrolled in the rigorous liberal arts curriculum and upwards of 300 have earned degrees; among graduates, the rate of post-release employment is high and recidivism is very low. Last year, the BPI debate team defeated Harvard, and earlier this month, the same team bested challengers from West Point.

Operating within the walls of six New York state prisons, the Bard program must abide by the rules and resources of each facility. For starters, teachers need to remember their chalk, said Sociomedical Sciences Professor Kim Hopper, an instructor in the program for the last nine years. It’s like teaching in the 1950s, he continued. No Internet or email. And forget about updating your syllabus because there is no ready access to copy machines.

“It makes you think very hard about how to teach, because you don’t see anyone between classes, so you have to make it happen in the classroom,” Hopper said.

Organized by the Mailman Incarceration and Public Health Action Network and the Association for Justice and Health (AJAH) student group, the April 15 Reforming Criminal Justice Symposium explored issues from prisoner access to healthcare to community reentry.

At the end of the day, AJAH President Allison Colucci, an MPH student in Sociomedical Sciences, said her hope was to advance understanding on the issues by hearing from people who understand imprisoned populations. “We wanted to create a space where students of public health could learn about the existing system from those directly impacted by and working within it,” she said.

Watch Ernest Drucker's keynote presentation below: