News | College Behind Bars

BPI Alumni Announce New IWT College Behind Bars Workshop for Teachers at UFT Film Event

  BPI alumni Dyjuan Tatro and Giovannie Hernandez joined a United Federation of Teachers screening of College Behind Bars as part of UFT's Black History Month Film Series on February 27th and proudly announced to the audience of teachers that Bard College will be offering… Read More 

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Event | College Behind Bars

College Behind Bars Coming to Holyoke Microcollege

Friday, March 20, 2020 1:30-3:30 p.m. Holyoke Library Community Room 250 Chestnut Street, Holyoke   Please join us for a screening of highlights from the documentary film COLLEGE BEHIND BARS, about students in the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), one of the most rigorous prison education programs in America.   The screening… Read More 

The Greatest Threat to the Prison Industrial Complex

In the U.S., the nation with the largest prison population proportional to population in the world, the idea of rehabilitation has long ago gone from being a stated goal to a completely ignored concept. A study which focuses on people released from prisons in 2005 reveals they were arrested again in the following 9-years at an astounding rate of 83%. Ot But rather than give up entirely on the 2.3 million primarily black and brown Americans who are incarcerated, the Bard Prison Initiative, founded in 2001, has taken a different approach.

The inspiring program, which provides people incarcerated in New York the opportunity to take college-level classes and obtain degrees from Bard College, is the subject of the PBS documentary “College Behind Bars.” Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer caught up with the film’s director Lynn Novick and Jule Hall, a graduate of the Bard Prison Initiative, in the latest episode of “Scheer Intelligence.”

Hall, who after receiving a degree from the program is now working as a program associate at the Ford Foundation, told the Truthdig Editor in Chief a bit about the program and how it impacted him and his fellow classmates.

“One of the reasons why I joined the program,” explains Hall, “is because I saw that there weren’t many constructive avenues for people to engage themselves on the inside. And my desire was to engage myself, and the Bard Prison Initiative gave me the means to do so by sitting me in a classroom, helping me to see myself as a student, and allowing me to, you know, take a more active role in my own self-development.”

Hall goes on to discuss his project, which takes a look at how “West Germany in 1954 worked to create a multicultural society by using migrant workers called Gastarbeiter,” and how he even learned German during the program. He also describes the powerful class discussions that were made possible through the program, and how his fellow classmates and he were able to grow throughout, despite the dire conditions they faced while in prison.

One of the most incredible facts about the Bard Prison Initiative is how it has reduced recidivism through education. Graduates of the program have a 4% recidivism rate as opposed to much higher rates reported across the country. One of the obstacles to programs such as these, however, are financial, especially in that lower rates of recidivism eats into the prison industrial complex’s bottom lines. Scheer, however, points out why this decline should be desirable to American society as a whole.

“We know that people returning to jail, that’s an expense; this is not a way of saving money,” says Scheer. “And so you actually have here a stunning example of something that works. And there are increasing numbers of conservatives, as well as liberals and so forth, who know that rehabilitation—that, you know, considering people as full human beings with full potential, no matter what happened to them when they were 17 or 27 or 37, […] that there’s something there in each person.”

Near the end of the interview, Scheer also asks Novick what inspired her to work on the documentary series, highlighting how often projects such as this are overlooked in our capitalist society for films that can perhaps garner more prestige or financial reward.

“You are, someone who is very successful,” say Scheer, “and you work with Ken Burns on these different projects, and probably recognized as [one of] the best documentary filmmakers alive […] And you got into this really tough issue, and you put a lot of time into it. [What] got you into this project and what have you learned from it?”

“[The producer Sarah Botstein and I] got the chance to just teach a class in the program,” responds the filmmaker, “and were so inspired by the students, and really exhilarated and also devastated to think about this incredible talent and capacity and intellectual sort of fervor, and then think about where it’s happening and the juxtaposition of those two things. [Our] first reaction was this would be an amazing film. And our second thought was, we don’t have time, we’re busy working on our Vietnam series […] but it really stayed with us.

“[Making the film has] been an incredible privilege,” Novick continues, “and I will never think about education, incarceration, filmmaking, politics, human beings, the human condition, the same way again.”

Listen to the full inspiring discussion between Novick, Hall and Scheer, which touches on the larger issues surrounding incarceration in the U.S. and its connection to slavery and inequality.

How A Liberal Arts Education Helps Felons Become ‘Civic Beings’

By Emily Chamlee-Wright


Prison inmates learn job skills before they're released

SAN QUENTIN, CA— SEPTEMBER 27: Inmates serving time at San Quentin prison learn how to code as part of The Last Mile program, on September 27, 2016 in San Quentin, California. Inmates learn a skill – coding – that can ensure they will get good-paying jobs when they are released. The governor says he will reduce the prison population by 30% in two years. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)


Later this month, professors Chris Surprenant (University of New Orleans) and Jason Brennan (Georgetown University) will release their new book on mass incarceration, Injustice for All: How Financial Incentives Corrupted and Can Fix the U.S. Criminal Justice System.

The numbers, Surprenant reminded me in a recent interview, are staggering. At the beginning of 2019, around 2.3 million people—one out of every 140 people—were locked up in U.S. jails and prisons. “This prison industrial complex,” says Surprenant, costs American taxpayers “$182 billion annually to support everything from policing to prison service providers to the judges and courts.” That figure climbs even higher, he observed, when we factor in $33 billion a year in lost labor productivity.

“These large numbers should be a concern to any and all Americans,” Surprenant said. “Beyond the financial cost is the social cost to many of our communities,” especially, Surprenant noted, communities of color.

And then there’s the effect on the incarcerated individual him or herself. Studies on the effects of incarceration show that even a short stint in prison can have a negative psychological impact on a person. In a 2001 paper commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services, social psychologist Craig Haney found that “the process of prisonization involves the incorporation of the norms of prison life into one’s habits of thinking, feeling, and acting.” Once released, Haney observed, “the continued embrace of many of the most negative aspects of exploitative prisoner culture is likely to doom most social and intimate relations, as will an inability to overcome the diminished sense of self-worth that prison too often instills.”

For those of us who believe in the liberal ideal—that anyone, regardless of the circumstances of his or her birth, can flourish—the social cost of mass incarceration is deeply troubling. In Surprenant and Brennan’s book, which suggests ways to reduce the scope of what’s considered criminal activity and change perverse financial incentives that lead to overcriminalization and excessive punishment, we can find hope for the long-term future.

But in the shorter term, how should we address the social cost of the 2.3 million currently incarcerated?

The powerful new PBS miniseries College Behind Bars—directed by Lynn Novick, produced by Sarah Botstein, and executive produced by Ken Burns—suggests we might find hope in the transformative effect of higher education. The miniseries follows New York prison inmates who are pursing liberal arts degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative, a program of Bard College. The episodes can be streamed free on PBS.org.

“What college does, it helps us learn about the nation,” inmate Rodney Spivey-Jones says in the miniseries. “It helps us become civic beings. It helps us understand that we have an interest in our community, that our community is a part of us and we are a part of it.” In the fourth episode Spivey-Jones participates in Bard Prison Initiative’s winning debate against the Harvard University debate team. He also discusses his senior project, a research project on how discourse shapes perceptions of equality.

John Gonzalez, another inmate, explains the process of learning as “putting words to systems that you’ve recognized your whole life but never had a word for. Right? [Like] hegemony or alienation.”

Throughout the miniseries, the camera sits in on classes and writing workshops where students discuss Moby Dick, Hannah Arendt, King Lear, and Plato’s Republic. In an op-ed in USA Today, former inmate and Bard Prison Initiative graduate Giovanni Hernandez says his academic journey “was like emerging from Plato’s cave.”

“My education trained me to think critically, to challenge conventional wisdom, to spot inconsistencies, to interrogate my own opinions and ideas,” Hernandez writes.

What better reminder of the liberating power of higher education than to hear incarcerated men and women describe their experience? For their crimes the students of the Bard Prison Initiative have lost their liberty and been removed from civil society; but through a liberal arts education, they have developed new relationships with history and philosophy, figures living and dead, and the agency required to form conclusions of their own. And those developments empower incarcerated students to be, as Rodney Spivey-Jones said, “civic beings.”

This is the promise of a liberal education: It connects us to humanity—our own and the whole of it beyond ourselves. Liberal education sets a course toward flourishing by inviting us to partake of our cultural inheritance of ideas handed down through the generations, by interrogating the forces that shape the world and the individuals within it, and by considering the stories that help us make sense of it all.

For human beings who’ve been locked in prison for years, even decades, that sense of connection can be deeply transformative. “People on the outside don’t really understand what’s involved when you completely lose your liberty,” Anthony Annucci, acting commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections, says in the miniseries. As one inmate put it, an incarcerated man feels like society is “against” him, like he’s not a real member of society anymore.

Education can help prevent that disassociation and alienation. Talking to Rolling Stone magazine, executive producer Ken Burns says, “When Thomas Jefferson said, ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ he wasn’t after material things in a marketplace of objects. He was after lifelong learning. I think what College Behind Bars suggests is the power of education.”

Educational programs like the Bard Prison Initiative are not without detractors. College Behind Bars explores the complicated politics behind funding for in-prison education programs. Corrections commissioner Anthony Annuccio also discusses resentment among corrections officers, most of whom don’t have college degrees.

And of course, University of Cambridge-based program Learning Together—whose motto is “Education as the practice of freedom”—faced serious scrutiny and skepticism after former prisoner and program student Usman Khan killed two people on November 29 at a Learning Together event in London. It is perhaps worth noting that two other former prisoners, including one convicted murderer, were among those who ran to help the victims and subdue the attacker.

Sebastian Yoon, one of the inmates profiled in College Behind Bars, was 16 years old when he went to prison in 2006. While pursuing his B.A. through the Bard Prison Initiative, he has the word “Reason” taped to his cell wall. Yoon says that when he’s reading books or writing essays, “the walls, they disappear. They dissipate. And I’m in my zone. I’m reading about Kierkegaard. I’m learning about history, memory. And I become free.”

Yoon was released from prison earlier this year.

 

I am President and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), which works with scholars who advance a deeper understanding of ideas in the classical liberal intellectual tradition.

Prisoners can read Shakespeare, too

Student Shawnta Montgomery spoke inspiring words at her graduation ceremony: “Inside the walls of a classroom, you escape the walls of a cell — and you become an individual again.” Montgomery was graduating from the Bard Prison Initiative program, featured in the new PBS and Ken Burns documentary, College Behind Bars.

The four-part series tracks a fascinating prison education initiative Bard began in 1999, which now serves 300 individuals. Two dozen similar programs exist in 28 states, though Bard’s is the most highly-regarded.

The documentary provides a fascinating window into the initiative’s prison classrooms: Classic Greek literature, Shakespeare, history, writing seminars, Chinese. The small, seminar-style classes filled with engaged, articulate students could be those of any elite liberal arts college — if not for the green jumpsuits.

Bard Prison Initiative students benefit from the wisdom and experience of Bard professors, who hold them to the same high expectations as their main campus students. Some students enter with educational abilities so low, they struggle to read basic phrases, let alone the complicated writing of The Odyssey or King Lear.

Additionally, they study without the internet — a benefit most students take for granted.

Above all, what shines through is gratitude. “You’re putting words to systems that you’ve recognized your whole life, but you never had a word for. Hegemony. Alienation. It’s hard, but it’s rewarding,” said BPI participant John Gonzalez.

Is it idealistic, even frivolous, for men and women in prison to be reading classical literature? Some argue that time and resources would be better spent teaching prisoners skills or trades so that they can obtain employment after graduation as laborers.

Though the two types of study are not mutually exclusive, trades are typically emphasized for certain types of learners at the expense of the liberal arts.

Yet, there is one intrinsic benefit to the classical studies Bard Prison Initiative students undertake: They grapple with texts and are drawn into stories that speak of the age-old struggles of the human condition. What does it mean to live a good life? What is justice? Why does power corrupt?

“No one ever taught me any of that,” said student Giovanni — a quip that became the title of the PBS series’s first episode.

The vast majority of participants have never experienced an education that called upon them to ask these questions. Some think that even in prison, they should not have access to it.

Though the program is now mostly privately funded, it previously received federal funding until the government ceased providing educational subsidies to prisons under the 1994 crime bill. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also pledged state funding for the program in 2014, but backlash led him to withdraw the policy proposal. Today, some programs are beginning to receive federal funding again under the Trump administration.

The most effective argument at the time (and likely today) is that taxpayer dollars should not subsidize free college for criminals, especially when the majority of the nation cannot afford it.

Yet, Bard Prison Initiative’s stellar outcomes make it ripe for private philanthropic investment. Participants have a recidivism rate of 4%, compared to the national average of 43%. A study from RAND estimates that for every $1 invested in the program, the country saves five dollars in re-incarceration costs over three years.

There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, some of whom wound up there because the education system failed them previously. As AEI scholar Gerard Robinson commented, “The right thing to do is not only give them a second chance, but to also admit the fact that many of them didn’t receive a first chance at school.”

Though it cannot begin to be quantified, the sense of authentic freedom education brings to those behind bars may be even more lasting than any return on investment.

What Happens When Incarcerated People Get a World-Class Education?

One graduate, featured in a new PBS documentary, shares the ups and downs of earning a degree behind bars.

BPI Students at chalkboard in classroom

Courtesy of Skiff Mountain Films

In the fall of 2015, a maximum-security prison in New York invited Harvard’s debate team to compete against a squad of three incarcerated men. The men, all convicted of violent crimes, knew they faced tough odds: Unlike their Harvard opponents, they could not use the internet to study the topic in advance. But the prisoners were declared the winners, and the crowd, including dozens of other incarcerated men in green jumpsuits, burst into applause.

The incarcerated debaters at Eastern New York Correctional Facility were students themselves, part of an undergraduate program run by Bard College. The Bard Prison Initiative gives a small group of prisoners access to the same professors and curriculum offered to students on the regular liberal arts campus, allowing them to earn bachelor’s degrees. “BPI is a simple experiment,” Max Kenner, the program’s founder, says in College Behind Bars, a new documentary series directed by Lynn Novick, produced by Sarah Botstein, and executive produced by Ken Burns. “What happens when we provide the kinds of education that are typically in the US only afforded to the wealthy or lucky or rich, to others?”

What happens is more than just beating Harvard (or Cambridge) at debate. “We were blown away by the seriousness and intellectual sophistication and curiosity and the focus and collegiality and the way the students talked with us and to each other and raised really profound challenging questions that we had never been asked,” says Novick, who herself taught a Bard class about film before beginning the documentary. Graduates of the program are also much less likely to commit other crimes later. Only 4 percent of them have wound up in prison again, compared with about 40 percent of other New York prisoners.

If only more people could take advantage of the opportunity. Prison college programs used to be fairly common, but the 1994 crime bill written by Joe Biden and signed by Bill Clinton gutted federal funding for them. By 2001, when the Bard program began, only three other programs in New York offered higher education behind bars. Today, the documentary series shows that less than 2 percent of incarcerated people in the state’s prisons have access to higher education.

This week, I caught up with Sebastian Yoon, one of the students portrayed in the film. Incarcerated at the age of 16, he spent the first part of a 15-year sentence sweeping floors and wishing he could go off to college like his friends on the outside. At one point, he became so desperate he tried to kill himself. But the Bard program changed his outlook, and he threw himself into pursuing a degree in social studies. In one of the final segments of the series, he holds back tears after receiving an A on his senior thesis. “I want to go home and I want to look back at prison and say, ‘Prison was terrible, I never want to go back, but I learned something,’” he says afterward. “That is where transformation happens. That is what stops people from coming back to prison.”

Yoon was recently released. Here, he shares what it was like to go through Bard, the challenges of studying in a cell, and how a college program transformed the maximum-security prison where he lived.

Can you tell me a little about what your life was like growing up, and how you arrived at Eastern Correctional Facility?

I grew up without a mother, who left me when I was five. My father and my two siblings, we were together, and then I went to Korea for about two years when I was five. We came back to Flushing, Queens, and moved to Long Island when I was 10, and it was there that I found myself being one of few Asians in the entire school. I faced a lot of discrimination and racism. I didn’t know how to respond; all I could do was go home and pretty much cry. There was one time when I just snapped and reacted violently. From then on, I realized people stopped bothering you when you used force. I started hanging out in the streets, where I found a sense of empowerment. One night, me and my friends were hanging out at a karaoke bar, and a fight erupted, which wasn’t unusual for us. But this case obviously changed my life: At the age of 16, I was sentenced to 15 years for manslaughter in the first degree, as an adult. Because at the time, teenagers were still charged as adults in New York state. And then I landed at Eastern, five years after I was incarcerated.

Do you remember what your first day of class was like and how you felt?

When I first started class, I was very skeptical. I mean, I was interested and excited to be a part of it, and to have gotten accepted, but I was skeptical. Because generally programs within prisons are dumbed down, and nobody cares, not even the people who are teaching. The greatest surprise to me was how engaged and passionate the professors were. They didn’t treat us as prisoners or make the curriculum easy for us in any way.

Where would you study?

Most of my work happened in my cell late at night. Usually people start going to sleep at 11, but for us college students, sleep time was usually around 3 a.m., because the quietest time to study was after midnight. You don’t want to leave the lights on in the cell because it’s an open cell and it would bother people. So we would just turn on the lamps and read for hours on end and write essays. When you look out the window, the cells that you see with the lamps reflecting, they were usually college students.

Sebastian Yoon, Skiff Mountain Films

Sebastian Yoon, Skiff Mountain Films

The film mentions how studying would get interrupted regularly for the count—when all the guys would have to go back to their cells to be counted by correctional officers. What were some of the other challenges that made it hard to be a student in prison?

Just being a prisoner, that in itself was probably the biggest struggle. No matter how hard you try to be a student, you are first and foremost a prisoner. The only way to fight it was to just get lost in the ideas and the books and discussions.

Without access to the internet, how would you do research?

Most of our research came through books. But we did have a non-online internet, called JSTOR. So we would type up a subject title, and we would see only the titles of the articles. Based on the titles, we could submit request forms, and there is a faculty member for BPI who, along with a team of Bard college students on [the main Bard campus], would print these papers out and bring them into the prison.

In the series, one student talks about how he was put into solitary confinement after writing a story for homework that included characters who swore during the dialogue. Were there other examples of students being punished for doing their work?

Not for doing homework, per se. But I’ve seen some instances where students got a ticket for having passed the book limit in their cells. In New York, I think the max is 15 books per cell. In a given semester, if you’re taking four to five classes, you’re going to receive more than 20 books. And you have to also include the personal books you have. Some officers are understanding, but there are some officers who would give you a ticket. Something like that was very frustrating. But what can we do? We took the risk. Books were more important.

Some of the guys in the documentary describe the Bard program as a way to escape mentally from the confines of prison, and one says it’s a sort of an “oasis…in the desert.” Is that how you saw it?

Well for me, I have to say that this program gave me life in the literal sense. Because when I first went to prison, I tried to commit suicide upon receiving 15 years. And I was desperate to find a reason to live. I was desperate for hope, because all I could imagine was upon being released that nobody would ever give me an opportunity because I’m a convicted criminal, and they would see me as a 16-year-old who committed an act—not define me as a person who committed a bad act, but define me as a bad person. In a place like prison, once you’re given even a glimmer of hope, you’re just going to latch onto it. And higher education materialized in a form of hope. And I was just gung-ho all the way. Nothing else mattered.

I used to tell my dad that finishing my senior thesis comes before being released. Like I wanted to finish that paper, that’s how important it was to me.

What was your senior paper about?

About how Koreans living in Korea and Korean Americans here look back on Japanese colonialism, which happened in the 20th century in Korea, and how they used that history to define their identities.

How were you spending most of your time before you decided to apply for BPI?

In the beginning, I swept and mopped the school floors. After that I went to work as a cook in the officers’ mess hall. So instead of making food for the inmates, I made food for the officers.

I was 21 at the time I was accepted into BPI. During that time, my friends who were outside would tell me about what they were doing in college, what kind of courses they were taking. I felt a deep sense of shame and despair thinking that while my friends were doing what every 20-year-old should be doing, I’m sitting here staring at my wall for hours on end. And I’m making no improvements for my life, and my prospects for the future weren’t getting any brighter.

Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) Debate Union defeats Harvard University in September 2015. Photo: Skiff Mountain Films

Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) Debate Union defeats Harvard University in September 2015. Photo: Skiff Mountain Films

Some correctional officers never got a college degree themselves. Did this ever lead to tension with students who were pursuing their degree while they were incarcerated?

Some officers would say something like, “Just because you’re getting an education don’t think you’re better than me, or don’t think you’re smarter than me.” But there were also officers who encouraged us. It would really make my day whenever an officer searching my cell would ask about a paper that was sitting at my desk. “What are you learning now? I hope you guys graduate soon. I wish I could be there. If I could I will.” That was very encouraging for all of us.

Can you describe what graduation was like for you?

Oh, graduation was the highlight of my incarceration. It was a time when all the hard work that we’d put in was finally showcased. It was a testament to the fact that despite the difficulties, despite the hopelessness, we’d accomplished something. For my father, that became a talking point. As a parent, I guess when you’re having conversations with someone, it’s difficult to say, “My son or daughter is in prison.” Getting my degree, my dad could talk about me with a sense of pride, not in shame. He would say, “My son is incarcerated, but he’s getting a college education.” He was very proud that day.

Was there a particular book or class that made a big impression or changed your worldview?

My favorite class was called Cosmopolitanism. We talked about what it would like to have world citizenship, whereby our identities are not limited by nationalities, but where we are global members of the world. It taught me what it meant to have civic duty and to have civic virtues. I thought civic duties was limited to obeying laws, but that changed, and I realized that being a democratic person requires one to actively participate in the political process. I think it carries with me even up to this day. I’m constantly reading the news. I want to know what’s going on not only in the US, but in the world. And I want to be part of a change. And I’m gonna vote, which is something we couldn’t do in prison.

What are some of the ways that this Bard program changed Eastern as a facility?

It changes the atmosphere. If you ever visited, you would not see anything similar to what you would see in Hollywood shows or these documentaries that like to show prisoners acting irrationally and violently all the time. You would see incarcerated people walking around with textbooks in the yard, having conversations about philosophy and Plato. It pervades throughout the general population, the people who are not in the program: When they see us having a discussion, often they would come over and ask what we were talking about. The next thing we know, they were part of the conversation and we were able to teach them, but also we were able to listen to them. Which makes them feel like they want to continue this kind of thing and join BPI also.

When did you leave prison, and where are you now?

I was released from prison in March. I’m currently working as a program specialist with the Democracy Fund at Open Society Foundations, which is the second-biggest philanthropic organization in the world. We provide grants and support to other organizations and individuals who are committed to social justice reform work. I’m still in Long Island, but I work in Manhattan.

I live with my family, and it’s great. I’m helping to pay the mortgage, I’m able to do familial duties, to help my little sister with her homework. She’s in high school right now. She’s actually 16, which is the age I went to prison. Just looking at her reminds me how young I was. Because she seems like a baby to me. But yeah, life is really interesting, and I’m very optimistic for my future. And just being part of an organization that is about helping others, especially those who are marginalized, I mean, I wake up feeling really good about the coming day.

The series College Behind Bars aired on PBS on November 25 and 26 and is now available for free streaming on PBS.org through the end of January.

College behind bars: Education’s transformative power for America’s incarcerated men and women

Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) students conjugate Spanish verbs at Eastern New York Correctional Facility

Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) students conjugate Spanish verbs at Eastern New York Correctional Facility. SKIFF MOUNTAIN FILMS

By Lynn Novick
Special to The Times

In February 2012, my longtime producer and collaborator, Sarah Botstein, and I were invited to give a guest lecture and show scenes from our documentary, “Prohibition,” to college students taking a course on the history of social movements in America. We had been promoting the film for months, but this was something new — these students were earning their degrees inside Eastern NY Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Napanoch, New York. Not only were the incarcerated students thoughtful, sophisticated and knowledgeable, they asked the most insightful and probing questions we had ever been asked. It was a profound and unforgettable experience, and it upended every preconception I had about the people who are behind bars in America.

I have been a documentary filmmaker and student of history for 30 years and consider myself a reasonably well-informed, socially conscious person. But before that night, everything I knew, and assumed, about prisons and about the men and women incarcerated in them I had learned from newspapers, magazines, radio, books, movies and television. Mass incarceration — and its catastrophic disproportional impact on African Americans and people of color — for me was an abstraction until I walked into Eastern that night. While nearly every person of color I know has firsthand knowledge of incarceration, I did not know anyone who had served time in prison or had been convicted of a serious crime. To quote the inestimable lawyer and social-justice activist Bryan Stevenson, I did not have proximity to the problem.

Nor, I am ashamed to say, did I fully appreciate how thoroughly and tragically the tyranny of low expectations has infected our public-education system over generations. Most of the men and women who end up in prison in my home state come from the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and attended overcrowded, segregated, underresourced public schools. The Bronx Defenders’ Chief of Staff, Wesley Caines, who grew up in the Bronx and was incarcerated for 25 years, realized only after studying with college professors in prison that he had been cheated by his New York City education, which had not been nearly challenging enough. “There is a dual educational system in this country,” Caines says, “one for individuals who will rule and one for everyone else. What are the ramifications for American society,” when so many of our fellow citizens are being denied the opportunity to realize their potential?

Systematically and unjustly denied access to educational opportunity in their communities, the vast majority of people who end up in the prison system have no access to higher education behind bars, either. Corrections departments are supposed to rehabilitate people, to prepare them for returning to society, but with recidivism rates of 50-60%, clearly the opposite is true.

But it was not always this way. Higher education in prison was commonplace in America until 1994, when the Clinton Crime Bill banned federal Pell Grants for people in prison. Overnight, college behind bars was decimated. Privately funded programs like the one we visited, the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), slowly sprang up, but they do not begin to fill the enormous need. New York, it turns out, does more than most, but of the state’s more than 50,000 incarcerated men and women, only 950 are enrolled in college programs. Three-hundred of them are in BPI, working toward AA and BA degrees from Bard College, and they are held to exactly the same high academic standards as students on the college’s main campus. Max Kenner, the program’s executive director, says, “BPI is a very simple kind of experiment, which is what happens when we provide the kind of education that typically in the United States is only afforded to the children of the lucky or the entitled or the rich to others.”

With Congress considering bipartisan legislation this fall to reinstate Pell eligibility for incarcerated men and women, access to higher education behind bars may expand exponentially across the country, which has the potential to significantly reshape the criminal justice system. Those who have access to higher education while incarcerated, studies have shown, return to prison at dramatically lower rates. Of the 600 BPI alumni who have been released in the past 20 years, only 4% have gone back to prison.

To document for a larger public how and why education is so transformative we filmed a small group of men and women over a four-year period as they tried to earn degrees while behind bars. Being present as these men and women experienced the enormous power of education was life-altering for me in ways I never could have anticipated. Their stories, their lived experiences, revealed many dimensions of the grievous intersections of race, class, poverty and criminal justice in America, but they also taught me a great deal about resilience, determination and the joy of learning.

BPI students in a classroom, film still from 'College Behind Bars'

Bard Prison Initiative students at Eastern New York Correctional Facility in an advanced bachelor’s degree seminar. (Courtesy of Skiff Mountain Films)

Tamika Graham, whose mother was raising her teenage daughter while she served an eight year sentence, resolved to earn her AA degree while incarcerated to set a positive example. “I want my daughter to see that if I can do this in here,” she said, “there’s no reason why she can’t do it out there.” Dyjuan Tatro, who grew up in poverty, dropped out of high school and was incarcerated as a teenager, never imagined himself going to college. After six years in prison, he enrolled in BPI and for the first time in his life completely dedicated himself to education. “This is not just getting a degree,” he said. “It’s changing fundamentally the way I think, the way I interact with people.” Outside the classroom, Dyjuan discovered a passion for debate and participated in BPI’s historic win over Harvard, which made headlines around the world.

Many of the students we got to know — like nearly half of the 2.2 million men and women behind bars in America — are not the “nonviolent drug offenders” we hear so much about in criminal justice reform debates. They were convicted of serious, violent crimes, and their stories give lie to the prevailing assumption that people who have done harm cannot change. Going to college in prison and engaging the rigorous liberal arts curriculum prompted “a maturing of the soul,” Sebastian Yoon said. “Compared to four years ago, we’re not the same people we were.” The students developed the tools to understand, contextualize, take responsibility for and, going forward, to make up for their actions. A few days before his release (after 12 years), Giovannie Hernandez reflected, “I want my life to be a testament to the person’s life I took. That requires working to the best of my ability in making my life itself a symbolic memorial to his. If I don’t, I’m further disrespecting his memory. That’s the only way I’ll be able to redeem myself.”

Recently, Jule Hall (he earned his BA in prison in 2011 and is now a program associate at the Ford Foundation) and Bronx Defenders’ Caines returned to Eastern to meet with incarcerated students there. “You’re going through a process of re-entry right now that will prepare you for similar, if not even harder, challenges,” Hall told them. “But you’ll be prepared to take them on because you’re fully engaged in this program right now.” “Everything I do every day,” Caines added, “is in recognition of the 25 years I spent incarcerated, and the fact that across this country, there are still people in cages. I love this program. It allowed for me to find life and to grow, and to progress while in my cage.”

 


Lynn Novick is an Emmy, Peabody and Alfred I. duPont Columbia Award-winning documentary filmmaker. For nearly 30 years, she has been producing and directing documentaries about American culture, history, politics, sports, art and music. In collaboration with co-director Ken Burns, she has created more than 80 hours of acclaimed programming for PBS, including “The Vietnam War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “Frank Lloyd Wright,” “The War” and “Prohibition.”

BPI students at chalkboard
News | College Behind Bars

PBS chronicles 12 [incarcerated students] who value education in ‘College Behind Bars’

BPI alumni Jule Hall and Salih Israil, who are featured in College Behind Bars, spoke with Patrice Gaines along with the film’s director, Lynn Novick. This article, reproduced below, first appeared in NBC News.   The film fills the screen with stories about human transformation as… Read More 

‘College Behind Bars’ Makes Case For Allowing Inmates To Get College Educations In Prison

A new documentary, “College Behind Bars,” explores what happens when a college education is provided to people who are incarcerated.

We speak to Patriots Safety Devin McCourty about how the film relates to his work off the field as a governing member of the NFL Players Coalition, an athlete-led organization that advocates for racial and social justice.

We also talk to filmmaker Lynn Novick, as well as Sebastian Yoon, who earned his associate’s and bachelor’s degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative. Yoon is currently a program specialist for Open Society Foundations.