CBS News’ “60 Minutes” featured a six-year-old program of Bard College in upstate New York to offer liberal arts degrees to inmates at four New York State prisons. One inmate said that he and other convicts study five or six hours a day outside of class. Their clases are true liberal arts courses, like English, sociology, philosophy, and German. Salih Israel, serving 20-40 years for a robbery and shooting, pushed for a German course because he wanted to be able to read German philosophers in their original language.
Only about 10 percent of the inmates who apply to the college program are accepted. “To these people locked up, this is just a psychological lifesaver. A string of hope even if their release is 10, 15, 20 years out,” says Leon Botstein, the president of Bard. Higher education in penitentiaries used to be common, but in 1994 Congress eliminated federal funding for prisoners to go to college and many programs folded. The issue was: why give free college educations to convicts when so many students who haven't committed crimes can't afford it? “It’s a fair argument but we treat inmates for medical reasons, we treat inmates for drug addiction, why aren't we treating inmates for educational needs?” says Commissioner Brian Fisher, the head of corrections for New York State.