Point of View Magazine

NYFF Review: ‘College Behind Bars’

An extraordinary portrait of students in the prison system

BPI students writing Spanish verbs on a chalkboard.

The first hour of Lynn Novick’s four-part documentary series College Behind Bars plays out pretty much how one would expect this story to be told. [The four-part work screens in a single feature presentation at the New York Film Festival.] We meet a series of incarcerated individuals in a number of New York State correctional facilities who are enrolled in the Bard Prisoner Initiative (BPI). Ostensibly a free college education for those behind bars, BPI is set up for a disparate group of individuals who have traded sweeping floors or laundry duty for book studies. For the first episode, they tell their stories, the history of the programme is explained, and we have a fine if superficial view of this situation.

It’s in the subsequent three hours that Novick gently and convincingly builds upon this intro to get at the heart of not only the socio-political and law enforcement ramifications of the opportunities for these students, but also manages to deftly tease out the stories of their lives that brought them in conflict with the law. The simple thing would be to create a film series that over-glorifies the situation, brushing aside the complex moral and ethical circumstances revolving around these men and women. Yet by proceeding in a deliberate yet precise way, College Behind Bars builds into something quite extraordinary.

Novick is probably best known for her collaborations with Ken Burns, the iconic documentarian who serves as Executive Producer on this work. Novick has often been tasked with doing the interviews for their collaborative megaprojects for PBS, and much of her gift for eliciting stories from even the most reticent is fully on display here.

Shot over a period of four years, the film focusses on groups of male and female prisoners that live the twin lives of college student and prisoner. There’s talk of the lack of collegiate distraction afforded by being cloistered, yet the constant fear and institutional nonsense endemic inside jail effects even the most scholarly of the group. In one appalling, Kafkaesque moment, a prisoner is charged with incitement after his creative writing project is found to contain violent and sexually provocative rhetoric and put in solitary confinement and stripped of his ability to attend class. As one fellow classmate/prisoner puts it, he’s put in the hole for doing his homework.

Another haunting moment occurs when an act of violence by an engaged and eloquent student results in confiscation of months and months his of notes and articles, which were serving as the basis for an undergraduate thesis, and then were subsequently (and conveniently) lost by the system. Beyond the stories of childhood mayhem, revenge killings, horrific traumas and the like, I hate to admit that the deletion of all this work is the most personally haunting, as someone who still has thesis-related stress dreams some two decades after I completed my own project.

The film touches upon numerous hot-button topics, from the mass-incarceration factors that occupy the American judicial system to the Clinton Crime Bill that slashed didactic programmes, forcing private money to be used to fund them. The ties to recidivism and education are laid bare, and a central theme that’s repeated throughout is the notion that the individuals are finally given a chance to exercise academic muscles, freeing their minds from their normal fixation on simply surviving in prison or on the street.

The professors from Bard constantly refer to the fact that the standards in the prison education system are identical to those at their prestigious institution. We witness classes: everything from Intermediate Mandarin to calculus to classical literature. The prison outfits almost blend into becoming school uniforms. The intelligence and eloquence on display is often humbling. Yet throughout there are constant reminders of not only the unique challenges these students undergo just to stay afloat, but of course, the very real (and often horrific) things they did to be in jail in the first place.

Debates about what prison is for, be it punishment or rehabilitation, are hardly new. But as Novick’s doc brilliantly demonstrates, under these dichotomies and political postures are the stories of real individuals who often suffered from circumstances almost more abhorrent than the lives they’ve spent within prison walls. These stories are never presented as excuses or explanations, but rather as a kind of witnessing. They are narratives made palpable and comprehensible to those that haven’t lived through them, thanks in part to the educational opportunities that have given the students the tools to finally give voice to their situation.

Throughout we are drawn in fully to the ups and downs of college life, from the triumphs of a debate or thesis defense, to the halted opportunities of those whose actions in jail result in the loss of their ability to attend the school. If there’s ever a better indication of the privilege of education it’s this, the notion that only through model behaviour and obeying the strictures of the guards can one hope to even enter into the scholastic system.

It’s notable that the union representing the guards refused to participate, resulting in their appearances being blurred out and their perspectives of the individuals we hear from absent. There’s talk by a warden that speaks to some of the hostility that is raised by the schooling – many of the guards themselves lack higher education – and that is certainly one vector that could use further exploration in a follow-up piece.

Novick’s film certainly doesn’t present these educational opportunities as panacea for all ills, but it’s difficult to avoid being swayed by the testimony of those involved and the changes we witness over the doc’s scope. This film injects into political discourse a powerful indication of just how schooling shapes those that grab them, resulting in a deeply humanistic film that conveys all the deep and troubling sides of these issues. The happy, simple version of College Behind Bars is contained in the first act, and a lesser work would have ended it there, with a nice, feel-good and simplistic wrap-up. Credit is owed to the director and her team to keep digging, resulting in a quite extraordinary and effective film that illuminates brilliantly the lives of these men and women and the teachers that give them the opportunities they never had outside the prison walls.

College Behind Bars screens at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 12.