Dyjuan Tatro, a former inmate at the Eastern Correctional Facility in upstate New York, was stumped by a research paper he was working on after his release. So he decided to reach out to a friend he had met in a novel education program for prisoners offered by a nearby private liberal arts college: Gwen Walz, whose husband was then a member of Congress from Minnesota.
At the time Walz was on a family Christmas vacation in Costa Rica, but she took Tatro’s call and helped walk him through the problem.
“That’s what good friends do and that’s also what educational English teacher-mentors do,” Walz said in an interview this week ahead of Wednesday’s screening of a public television documentary about the program, the Bard Prison Initiative.
Correctional education has long been Walz’s personal passion. Now as Minnesota’s first lady, Walz has a platform to spotlight the successes of former inmates like Tatro, who works in local political advocacy in New York City.
“It is incredibly expensive both financially and emotionally to have people in prison,” Walz said. “And I think very much about victims, and I think the best way I can support victims is by trying to ensure that there aren’t more of them.”
Around the same time the Bard program caught Walz’s attention, it also landed on the radar of Lynn Novick, a documentarian who has collaborated with Ken Burns on films about Prohibition and the Vietnam War. The result was Novick’s “College Behind Bars,” a four-hour look at the Bard program that will air in November on Twin Cities PBS.
“We think our film raises two questions: What is prison for, and who in America has access to education,” Novick said.
Wednesday’s public screening comes as Gwen Walz expands her political profile, lending a voice to improving Minnesota prisoners’ chances of successfully returning to society. She also will soon lead a new “re-entry task force” aimed at incorporating housing and education opportunities to cut down on recidivism.
For Minnesota lawmakers looking for a rare bipartisan win in years to come, the governor’s wife suggests they look at expanding educational opportunities for inmates in state prisons.
She said she has had frequent conversations with her husband, Gov. Tim Walz, about his budget proposal to create a new “second-chance agency director” position whose responsibilities would include coordinating services between the state’s education and corrections departments. According to the governor’s office, those behind bars are less than half as likely to think they will go to a four-year college compared to the overall population. They are three times as likely to have had an incarcerated parent.
The initiative comes as Minnesota’s recidivism rates for inmates get worse, not better. The number of adults convicted of new felonies within three years of being released from Minnesota prisons climbed slightly from 35% in 2012 to 38% in 2017, according to recent Department of Corrections (DOC) figures.
In the 20 years since the Bard Prison Initiative formed in response to cuts to higher education funding for prisons in the 1990s, the program has seen more than 500 alumni return to society with just a 4% rate of recidivism, or returning to prison.
More than one model
Minnesota’s prison system already offers a set of career education courses and adult basic education. Three community technical colleges and Ashland University also are participating in a Pell grant pilot that includes clean-energy tech certification and four-year bachelor’s programs.
Gwen Walz grew enamored by the Bard Initiative after a fellow congressional spouse introduced her to the concept while she lived in Washington. She was struck by the program’s academic rigor, and she went on to get to know some of the students in the program — two of whom, including Tatro, will speak Wednesday.
Deputy Corrections Commissioner Sarah Walker — who will also participate in Wednesday’s discussion — said that while more than one model for correctional education exists, the Bard program has succeeded in “really bringing awareness to the individual human potential that is often forgotten or lost when we’re talking about incarcerated populations.”
But Walker said the DOC’s first priority was boosting its staffing levels. Commissioner Paul Schnell has expressed public concerns that the current Minnesota Senate public safety spending bill falls well short of targets needed to bolster officer and inmate security, especially after a wave of assaults that included two officer deaths last year.
“We’re not even looking at expansions of educational opportunities until we have a fully staffed facility,” Walker said.
Institutions like Notre Dame, Washington University in St. Louis and Yale University have adopted programs that draw inspiration from the Bard initiative. Gwen Walz acknowledges that while Bard may not present a direct blueprint for Minnesota, she said that “high standards and options for transformation are nonnegotiable.”
Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, is also making the trip to Minnesota to join the governor’s wife on Wednesday. He described her as a close friend and “someone who has really put in the time to come to really understand this issue in both a policy sense and a human sense.”
“It’s easy to understand the problems of crime and prisons in an entirely abstract sense, and when a person of either party spends time in these institutions they get a sense of the potential and human waste of what we call mass incarceration,” Kenner said.
Kenner said the program has confronted what he called a common prejudice that assumes in-prison education dilutes its quality and ambition. Gwen Walz added that she expected pushback from critics who see a degree earned inside Stillwater’s prison as holding less weight than one received on a college campus.
“We have to be willing to be disruptive enough to make this work and that’s super-challenging,” the state’s first lady said. She added: “I find that exciting and exhilarating and worth time and effort and worth fighting for.”