Craig Jude’s students in Woodbourne, N.Y., have had some interesting reasons for missing physiology class.
Occasionally a student, running late, will get caught at a checkpoint manned by guards. “Three of my students said they might have to miss an exam in a couple of weeks,” Jude said, “because their parole hearings are the next day.”
But Jude ’99, who teaches a college course at Woodbourne Correctional Facility, a medium-security men’s prison about 25 miles west of Poughkeepsie, said absences are few and far between. He has found his students to be respectful of him and each other. “If you were just to talk to any of them, I don’t think you would think they would belong in prison,” he said.
All of the students in the Bard [College] Prison Initiative, are incarcerated in New York. Established in 1995, the program enrolls about 200 who can earn associates and bachelors degrees from Bard.
Students admitted are the best and brightest from a population where, at Woodbourne for example, 80 percent have a violent felony conviction, according to published reports. But, no matter what their offense (their professor doesn’t ask), the students are motivated, competitive (some verymuch aware of their high GPAs), and determined to learn, Jude said.
“There are definitely some very bright students,” he said. “On a couple of exams I’ve had people who have not missed a single question—on a 50- to 75-question exam. Their ability to recall and retain the information is pretty impressive.”
He said the range of grades is comparable to those at Colby, where he taught two years ago, though the course is taught differently for a couple ofreasons. One, the students at Woodbourne are likely to have less preparation. Two, faculty in the prison are not allowed to bring in anything other than papers and books. No computers. Not even a cell phone.
For Jude, who also taught at Dartmouth, where he earned his Ph.D. in biology, it was a big change. “Even something like a CD or a DVD has to be specially cleared,” Jude said. “It’s definitely taking a step back in the way you have to teach.”
There are other differences. Guards monitor the class through a wall that is all windows. The professor enters the prison through metal detectors and security doors. There is no time in the lab for physiology because of the logistical problems it would create. Also, according to Jude, while students at Colby and Dartmouth often would wait until after class to admit they were stumped, not so in his prison class.
“They don’t have the same fear of looking foolish in front of the professor. They’ll ask anything that they’re unclear about,” Jude said.
While all college students have a lot to juggle, Jude’s take a four-course load, work a full-time job in prison, and have highly regimented lives. “That’s one of the comments that the students make a lot,” Jude said, “that one of the big misconceptions about prison is that they have nothing but time on their hands.”
He said his students say they want a college degree so they can get a good job and stay away from crime after they’re released. According to Bard, programs like this one reduce reincarceration rates from 60 percent to less than 15 percent.
Jude, whose wife, Brooke Frappier Jude ’00, teaches biology at Bard proper, said he’s learned some things as well in his prison teaching stint.
“It gets you seeing that it’s not just the people who have always been on that track toward an elite college that can do the work,” he said. “Anyone who is sufficiently motivated, even if they’ve made mistakes in their lives, can do the work and process the same information. It’s just a question of getting the opportunity to do so.”
—Gerry Boyle ’78