When it comes to prison reform, Daniel Karpowitz wants to return Minnesota to the place of prominence it held in the 1970s.
As the new senior Department of Corrections official tasked with dramatically expanding higher education in prison, Karpowitz’s hiring is seen as the clearest sign yet of the Walz administration’s emphasis on reshaping the system to provide second chances for some of the 9,607 people incarcerated in Minnesota prisons.
“I have a pretty aggressive vision on this,” Gov. Tim Walz said in an interview Friday. “I’m not afraid to set the bar pretty high. We have a fierce sense of urgency around this and I need to see it move.”
Karpowitz, who started in the $142,610-per-year job in June, is an academic with a deep legal background. He spent nearly 20 years with the Bard Prison Initiative in New York, a program that connects prisoners to liberal-arts educations. First Lady Gwen Walz has been a longtime supporter.
The Bard program where Karpowitz served as national policy director is often cited as a model for starkly curbing recidivism, in large part through a prison-degree program affiliated with an outside liberal-arts college. It could now become a model for Minnesota.
“My sense of my mandate is precisely what brings me here, is to join a team inside the Department of Corrections and the administration as a whole,” Karpowitz said in an interview. “That seems to me to create a generational opportunity both for Minnesota and I think to be part of something our entire generation across the country is dealing with.”
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said it’s no accident that Walz filled his top corrections, education and higher-education commissioners at the same time in the early days of his administration. “There was a high level of intentionality around that,” Schnell said.
Karpowitz now steps into a unique role, one that overlaps with multiple state agencies: corrections, education and higher education.
Karpowitz is perhaps best known for his 2017 book, “College In Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration.” He is taking on a post saturated with lofty expectations. Karpowitz’s job description is listed as “special adviser to the governor on criminal justice.” He’ll also be expected to outline a vision for the overlapping agencies while also developing pilot education programs for incarcerated students as well as corrections officers.
The administration also defines Karpowitz’s role as being “based on the recognition that mass incarceration is one of the leading civil-rights issues of our generation.” That language underlines the emphasis Walz has placed on meshing corrections and education — seen as a way of overcoming the educational deficits that put many people behind bars in the first place.
Walz described Karpowitz as someone who “embodies that spirit that 97% of these folks are going to be our neighbors. It’s both morally, economically and socially best that we start thinking through that continuum.”
During an executive retreat for corrections staff earlier this week, Karpowitz carried a thick yellow folder stuffed with black-and-white photos and a proclamation signed in 1979 by Gov. Al Quie recognizing what was then one of the world’s premier prisoner-education programs at the Stillwater prison.
The inmate-founded Insight Inc., partnered with corporate and philanthropic donors to fund a demanding college-degree program that linked incarcerated students with full-time jobs in fields such as telemarketing and computer programming. The program once drew a visit from former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, who met with inmates and spoke at a graduation ceremony. But the program was shuttered in the 1990s after news reports revealed mismanagement and financial impropriety.
Retired University of Minnesota Prof. Dan Detzner, a founding Insight Inc. board member who served until the late 1980s, met recently with Karpowitz to explain how some of the program’s tenets could be revived.
“We said then that there are men in prison who can handle a bachelor’s degree, can handle college-level work; we ought to give them the opportunity because we’d rather have guys coming out of prison having accomplished something positive, having added to their résumé rather than just subtracting from it,” Detzner said in an interview.
Karpowitz wants any new college programming for men and women in the prison system to have stern entry requirements and likewise difficult coursework. The harder the education, he reasons, the bolder the effect on recidivism the program can offer.
“The college programs that we build here — should we be able to do so — if they are not the hardest thing anybody’s ever done, I’m not interested,” Karpowitz said. “The difficulty and the rigor is what is empowering, it is what is transformative.”
Karpowitz will seek private and philanthropic partnerships to help pay for the college programming. But Schnell acknowledges that any new initiatives would likely trigger a need for more staffing. Schnell, a first-generation college graduate, still sees expanding college in prison as a long-term investment.
Bard’s program in New York has seen its 500 alumni return to society with just 4% returning to prison. Minnesota’s recidivism rates for all inmates has meanwhile climbed slightly from 35% in 2012 to 38% in 2017, according to the most recent data.
“I understand that there can be a reaction to why would we provide people [in prison] with an education,” Schnell said. “If we can intervene in a way that ultimately reduces the likelihood of them coming back to almost nothing — why wouldn’t we?”