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From inmate to graduate: getting a degree in jail

© Peter Foley | Bard Prison Initiative student Jonathan Alvarez at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York.
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© Peter Foley | Bard Prison Initiative student Jonathan Alvarez at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York.

© Peter Foley | Bard Prison Initiative student Jonathan Alvarez at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York.

What happens when violent convicts are taught liberal arts? According to hundreds of US felons who have gained degrees in philosophy and literature, higher education is transformative for both the student and society. And yet, it’s almost unheard of.

Byron Ortiz has been in prison since 1992, when he was convicted of homicide at 19. Having spent most of his life in Guatemala, Ortiz barely spoke English when he began his 30-year sentence. Today, he holds a master’s degree in Literature and Language at a prestigious US university.

Byron Ortiz has been in prison since 1992, when he was convicted of homicide at 19. Having spent most of his life in Guatemala, Ortiz barely spoke English when he began his 30-year sentence. Today, he holds a master’s degree in Literature and Language at a prestigious US university.

Ortiz, 44, is one of hundreds of convicts in the US Northeast who have graduated from New York’s 150-year-old Bard College, a liberal arts university which has been privately educating prisoners since 2001.

“Education gives you hope, it makes you not want to get into trouble,” Ortiz told FRANCE 24 during a visit to the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York. “I messed up big time. But that doesn’t mean I’m not deserving of a chance. Humanity is not completely lost when somebody commits a crime.”

Ortiz was the first person in his family to go to prison, and initially found himself cut off from his relatives. Today, he’s also the first person to have gone to university.

“I’m in a position of privilege now,” he said. “So it’s my duty to give back. It’s my debt to society. And that debt starts within the family.”

Some graduates from the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) have gone on to study at Columbia, Harvard and NYU, others have taken jobs at billion-dollar international companies, but most of them return to the same neighbourhood they left behind decades ago, working in public health, counselling and mentoring roles, many of them drawn, unsurprisingly, to helping youths at risk.

Serving out the last few years of his term, Ortiz is considered by many at Woodbourne as a mentor already.

Originally from Guatemala, Byron Ortiz studied the effects of US foreign policy and European culture on his home country, discovering K’iche’ Maya poet Humberto Ak’ab’al along the way.

One of his protégés is 27-year-old Jonathan Alvarez from Yonkers, New York, who, like Ortiz, was sentenced to 30 years in prison as a teenager. Before he applied for BPI, Alvarez spent his time lifting weights and watching telenovelas. “I was just building myself up physically, not mentally,” he told FRANCE 24. Today, he’s a poster child for BPI — endearingly enthusiastic about his studies, he describes himself as someone who “eats, lives and breathes” education.

“The average prisoner doesn’t want to talk about capitalism, democracy,” he said, blushing. “But me, my head’s in a book all day. I didn’t even know what political science was when I came in here. Now I’m passionate about it.”

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