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The Bard Prison Initiative

A long time ago, I wrote a short post about guest-lecturing in a class at New York's Eastern Correctional Facility, through the Bard Prison Initiative. In the New York Times Magazine this weekend, Ian Buruma writes about teaching two classes -- on 19th and 20th Century Japanese history, no less -- through the same program.

I highly recommend it. Buruma is one of the great, humane writers of our time, with a measured, Orwellian tone and a vast intellectual range.

It's also worth considering, again, just why it is that this kind of prison education is virtually nonexistent outside of the Bard program at Eastern. In one of the most short-sighted of the many short-sighted decisions of the mid-1990s, Congress eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners, which had made possible thousands of academic programs. The logic, as Buruma puts it, was that if 100,000 low-income students couldn't get Pell Grants, it was "unfair" for incarcerated people to get them.

This is reminiscent of the logic that Social Security is unfair to African-Americans because they don't live as long. It is an early example of the twisted, bizarre uses of the idea of "unfairness" in right-wing rhetoric. Problems that are not entirely unsolvable (increase Pell Grants, improve health care or African-Americans) become redefined as if they are constant variables, which create an "unfairness" to be dealt with by eliminating benefits for someone else.

And, finally, if Max Kenner, the young founder of the Bard Prison Initiative, isn't in the next group of MacArthur Fellows, then what's the point of that program?

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 22, 2005 | Permalink


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Or perhaps the notion that unfairness is alleviated by increasing the net redistribution of wealth is not a popular one among fiscal conservatives.

Posted by: Tom | Feb 22, 2005 4:38:27 PM

This kind of political argument goes way way back on the right wing, and not only among the opinion and political elites. Saying a prisoner has anything better than a working man is a sure fire way to eliminate access to that thing by the general public.

Posted by: General Glut | Feb 22, 2005 5:14:45 PM

the twisted, bizarre uses of the idea of "unfairness" in right-wing rhetoric. Problems that are not entirely unsolvable (increase Pell Grants, improve health care or African-Americans) become redefined as if they are constant variables, which create an "unfairness" to be dealt with by eliminating benefits for someone else.

Wow. This is the first time I've seen this clearly & explicitly stated. This will help me out somewhere, writing something, I suppose.

Thanks very much for the insight!!

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