Every Friday afternoon this semester, 12 students have traveled to the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Maine to attend class with 12 inmates. This week, the Orient features a story about Citizenship and Religion in America, taught by Associate Professor of Religion Elizabeth Pritchard. Initially proposed by students and spearheaded by Pritchard, the course was inspired by the Bard Prison Initiative and modeled after Temple University’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.

According to a 2005 study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, the recidivism rate for participants in prisoner exchange programs was on average 46 percentage points lower than the rate for the general prison population. If expanded, these programs could have a huge impact in the United States, which has the most incarcerations per capita. For those serving long sentences, classes shared with students from the outside offer respite from an otherwise grim environment. But perhaps more importantly, prison exchange programs help to put ex-convicts in a position where they can more fully contribute to society after getting out. 

For college students, prisoner exchange programs provide an unparalleled educational opportunity. Our society marginalizes those who have committed crimes, yet in these classrooms, the opinions and insights of all students receive equal weight. According to this week’s article, Citizenship and Religion in America was designed to enable a discussion of what citizenship means to both inmates and Bowdoin students. Grappling with issues of freedom on a daily basis, inmates offer a radically different perspective. The subject material provides common ground, highlighting similarities—and not differences—between classmates. Reflecting on his experience in the course, one inmate wrote in a feedback letter, “When class ended, I found myself saying goodbye to strangers that I now considered friends. Crossing the yard, it took every ounce of self-restraint not to skip and whoop and punch the air.” 

Yet this semester’s class was approved on a one-time-only basis. To ensure that there are similar classes in the future—as we believe there should be—the College needs to establish a more formal structure. Pritchard and the two students who proposed the idea have laid the groundwork for future classes and we hope the College builds on this in years to come. Whether this means appointing a faculty liaison or formalizing a semester-to-semester schedule for professors to rotate through teaching, we need support from both individual departments and the administration to meet continued student demand. Peer schools such as Amherst, Bard, Cornell and Dartmouth have had success with similar programs and Bowdoin should follow suit. 

As President Joseph McKeen said at his 1802 inaugural address, elite institutions like Bowdoin are “founded and endowed for the common good, not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education.” By allowing Maine inmates access to the wealth of knowledge that even one course can provide, the College increases the value of a Bowdoin education for students, whether they are behind bars or not. 

The editorial represents the majority view of the Bowdoin Orient's editorial board, which is comprised of Erica Berry, Nora Biette-Timmons, Garrett Casey, Ron Cervantes, Marisa McGarry, Sam Miller and Kate Witteman.