The Bishop on College for Prisoners

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

 On Monday, March 3rd, Governor Cuomo announced the details of his initiative to provide college education and degrees to men and women behind bars in New York prisons. This initiative makes extraordinary practical sense.

 The cost of providing educational benefits to inmates is a small fraction of the cost of incarcerating them, and history demonstrates that those who come out of prison with an education and the ability to find and hold work, to support their families, and to contribute to the society they will rejoin are far less likely to return to prison. Currently the recidivism rate in New York State is forty percent. The governor’s initiative represents a promising path to reducing the number of people held in New York prisons, and reducing the cost of those incarcerations.

 But I write to commend the governor for this far-sighted proposal for other reasons as well. I have had first-hand experience of some of the hundreds of incarcerated men who were or are participating in the Bard College Prison Initiative, the largest such program in the country. I have known some of them. I have sat inside the walls with people who, while living in hope of release, have already been set free — who have had their lives enlarged and enriched — by their academic study and engagement with the world of ideas. I have seen people no longer defined by their mistakes or offenses but by their possibilities, and I have seen in them and in the opportunities provided them by Bard College a living witness to Jesus’ teaching that in visiting the prisoner we are serving him, and to our baptismal mandate to “respect the dignity of every human being.”

Bard College has an historic relationship with the Diocese of New York, which founded it, and when I represented our diocese on the stage at the college’s 2013 commencement, it was my privilege to witness the conferring of degrees on two men who had completed their studies inside prison and been released in time to attend commencement exercises at the college. It was an extraordinary moment which galvanized the whole gathered community. It was a visible and profound icon of religious and humanistic hope, and I was proud of them and very proud of Bard and its president Leon Botstein.

The funding for such work proposed by the governor offers the hope and possibility of dramatically expanding the scope of these efforts beyond what private institutions like Bard are already doing and can do. This is hope. This is a heartening initiative fully consistent with the missional and transformative work and vision of the church, and I write to offer my thanks to the governor and my support for this initiative. I write to commend this to you, and to ask your support as well of the governor’s college in prison initiative.

And I remain Yours,

 The Rt. Rev. Andrew M. L. Dietsche

 

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