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.

Incarcerated People Can Do More than Beat Harvard in a Debate

“College Behind Bars,” a new PBS documentary executive-produced by Ken Burns, shines a light on a program that every major university in America should be sponsoring

BPI Students at chalkboard in classroom

Courtesy of Skiff Mountain Films

When you watch College Behind Bars, which began last night on PBS and concludes tonight, or any other documentary like it, please don’t say that it “humanizes” the people who are photographed. Because they’re people. Our society teaches us to consider folks like Dyjuan Tatro and Giovannie Hernandez, two of the film’s subjects, to be numbers or vermin or somehow less than us when they’re locked up, and they are considered to be little more than the property of a state or federal prison. But we have to remember that is a judgment that someone, or a system, has put upon them.

Also, we should remember that they’ll likely get out one day. What then?

“Ninety-five percent of people who are incarcerated will eventually get out,” Ken Burns, the executive producer of the documentary, told Rolling Stone. “And the question is, do we want them as contributing members of society, or do we want them having used prison as a different kind of school to hone criminal skills? If you’re spending $100 billion a year to maintain our prison system and it has a 75 percent recidivism rate, something is broken.”

This is the question that the four-part film examines with a critical eye. Directed by Lynn Novick and produced by Sarah Botstein, College Behind Bars profiles the Bard Prison Initiative, a Bard College program that extends its curriculum and has awarded nearly 550 full degrees thus far to matriculated students in six New York State prisons.

“It was an enormous privilege to work on a film that was living, breathing American social history,” said Botstein. “The politics changed so drastically in the five years that we were filming and editing. When we started, people kind of would shrug and kind of lean in a little bit when we said we wanted to make a film about higher education in prison. And by the time we locked picture, everybody was really excited that we had.”

The hyper-awareness of issues revolving around incarceration, education, and race did not merely manifest on the outside. “You know, a lot of times, when we don’t have access to things we decide that they are not for us,” Tatro told me in a phone interview. He added that he had spent his entire life thinking he’d never go to college. “The opportunity was there for me to even dream of this possibility. Seeing black men, Latino men, men like me who came from the types of neighborhoods and went through the same types of bad schools that I did speaking Mandarin, doing higher-level mathematics, sitting down and having these complex political discussions — that, even before the coursework, had a really profound effect on my sense of identity.”

Tatro entered prison at the end of his teenage years and felt that he applied to BPI, one year into his 12-year sentence, because he had “nothing else better to do.” He would go on to become a member of the Bard debate team that defeated Harvard in a well-publicized 2015 matchup and is now working for BPI as a government-affairs and advancement officer.

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

“Even before [I took part in] the classes, the existence of Bard College in that space allowed me to reimagine what I was capable of and to think of myself as a college student,” Tatro said.

My mother has a saying that she has repeated to me in trying times: If the train doesn’t stop at your station, it isn’t your train. It is meant to convey that not every job, or person, is meant for you. But what if you never know that your train exists? Our carceral state, one that prioritizes punishment over the actual correction that the facilities promise, is the America we continue to build. That’s why it is so urgent that Bard Prison Initiatives become the rule, not the exception.

“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,” Burns said to me when we spoke. “I think what College Behind Bars suggests is the power of education.”

Neither Burns nor I have a stake, as this society of ours does, in the dehumanization of people end up incarcerated. The millions sunk into a failing prison system are more like an investment, maintaining a status quo that rots the very notion of a fair and just America but at least makes the elite feel like the heroes of their own story. Those who profit from every loophole that benefits the wealthy, white, and privileged may not want to see someone like Giovannie Hernandez coming out of prison after nearly 12 years with a degree and ready to make America more equitable.

The work BPI does is also a strike against recidivism. These people are less likely to go back to jail or prison. We know that there are elites who either enjoy looking down on folks or who actually benefit financially from people going to prison. Studies and experience have been proven that increasing opportunities for prison education reduces crime, helps communities thrive, and boosts the economy. Those of us without private prison stock should all want fewer people incarcerated and more education for those who are. Instead, we’ve seen states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia either seek (unsuccessfully, after protest) to block book donations from the public or charge those who are locked up egregious amounts to use e-readers.

But doesn’t it lift us all to see these folks come out of prison not just with more skills and more education, but with more hope? It is hardly a spoiler to tell you that a documentary like this ends with a graduation, and the overriding emotion that both the graduates and the audience are left with: hope. What you see at the end is a testament to the power of education, and why it remains such a dangerous and underrated weapon against a racially and economically unjust status quo in this nation.

When I spoke to Hernandez, he told me that he didn’t really have hope in prison before the Bard program entered his life. “I felt that I had to carry myself in a manner like I couldn’t care too much,” he said to me. “It was a defense mechanism. But Bard made me care about something. It gave me a way to figure it out.”

Now a Bard graduate and a case manager for the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Hernandez wrote an op-ed in USA TODAY in which he described his education as “emerging from Plato’s cave.” He told me that Novick, the director, found his story particularly moving.

“At the very beginning of the film, Giovannie talked about the person who encouraged him to apply to BPI,” Novick said. “The single kindest, most loving thing anyone had ever done for him was to force him to apply to the program. I think there’s just this sense of untapped potential that has been languishing, for lack of a better word, and neglected in our society — particularly in communities of color and other underserved communities where there’s generations of people who have ended up incarcerated and been exposed to subpar education.”

That is why the experience of watching College Behind Bars is, as Novick describes the process of making it, so inspiring and heartbreaking. She, an alumna of Yale, and I, who went to Penn, lamented that universities like those were sitting on multibillion-dollar endowments and didn’t have programs like Bard’s.

“These places,” Novick says of places like our Ivy League alma maters, “are just hoarding privilege and just sustaining and perpetuating inequality.” Novick noted that Yale did have a prison program this year that used a grant from BPI — ”because they didn’t want to put their own resources into it, if you can imagine” — that was very successful, proving that elite universities should be looking to prisons not merely to be charitable and to contribute to society, but to remain competitive. “If you, Fancy College, pride yourself on being the place where the most brilliant students develop their potential, you are missing out on an extraordinary talent pool.”

Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) graduates celebrate at Taconic Correctional Facility in June 2017. Photo: Skiff Mountain Films

Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) graduates celebrate at Taconic Correctional Facility in June 2017. Photo: Skiff Mountain Films

And if these institutions can’t just do it for their own benefit, perhaps they’ll understand — as Bard College clearly has — that it is part of their mission to help everyone realize their own humanity. If anyone is watching, I hope that some of my fellow classmates and the administrators at universities like Penn are watching College Behind Bars. The people who hold the purse strings, the professors who love to signify their positivity online and in their published work, and those students and alumni looking to make a difference: This is your chance. If your college or university won’t use its endowment or solicit donations to establish such a program and share its prestige, find one that will. Every state, every locality, every prison should be educating those who are incarcerated. You see the blueprint. Follow it.

‘This Is a Story of Hope.’ New Documentary Series College Behind Bars Follows Men and Women Working to Gain College Degrees While in Prison

BPI students at Eastern New York Correctional Facility in an advanced bachelor’s degree seminar.

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

“Inside the walls of a classroom, you escape the walls of a cell — and you become an individual again.” So says Shawnta Montgomery, speaking at her graduation in the Bard Prison Initiative in College Behind Bars, the latest documentary project from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

The four-part series follows men and women incarcerated in maximum and medium security prisons across New York state over the span of four years, as they attempt to gain college degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), one of the most rigorous prison education programs in the U.S.

BPI operates out of six New York State prisons. Students undergo a rigorous admissions process and then enroll full-time into the same classes they would take on Bard College’s main campus. They’re taught by college faculty in seminar settings, and held to the same academic standard as any other Bard student. BPI issues associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees.

BPI was founded in 1999, five years after Congress ended inmates’ eligibility for federal Pell grants (need-based grants from the U.S. government to help students with financial need pay for college) as part of the Clinton Crime Bill, during the era of “tough on crime” policies. While some colleges decided to continue to grant degrees to prisons, operating off of private donations, at the time only three other programs in N.Y. state extended higher education to inmates. Dozens of other colleges now operate in prisons across the U.S.

In 2016, the Obama administration started a pilot program to offer some Pell grants to incarcerated Americans again; in June Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called on making the program permanent. (Eighty six percent of BPI is privately funded by donations and private grants, but 14% comes from public funding.)

But the pilot program only extended eligibility to some 12,000 inmates, out of the over 2 million incarcerated people in the U.S. College Behind Bars makes a moral and fiscal case to change that. The filmmakers aren’t alone in this opinion; criminal justice reform has become an increasingly nonpartisan issue over the past few years. A 2016 study by the nonpartisan think tank the RAND Corporation found that inmates who participated in educational programs were up to 43% less likely to reoffend and return to prison. That same study found that for every dollar invested into correctional education, nearly five dollars is saved in reincarceration costs over three years.

Executive produced by Burns and directed by Novick in her solo directorial debut, College Behind Bars was also produced by their longtime collaborator Sarah Botstein and edited by Tricia Reidy.

To discuss the project, TIME sat down with Novick, Botstein, and Dyjuan Tatro, one of the incarcerated BPI students who appears in the film. Tatro was released from prison in 2017.

TIME: Dyjuan, what was it like being part of this documentary?

Dyjuan Tatro: It has been a really great experience. Lynn and Sarah have been really respectful to us. When they first showed up, there was some skepticism because of the type of stories that are conventionally told about incarcerated people in this country. But those of us in the BPI community sat down and looked at their body of work, at how rigorous it is, how they always look at both sides of an issue. We decided they were people that we could trust.

Typically, you would know when people are coming to film you. But we were in prison and couldn’t have [outside] contact with Lynn and Sarah. They would just show up and be there with the cameras, and you’d never really get used to that. But they made a big effort, again, to be respectful. If you watch the film, there’s no narrator. It’s us telling our stories. They really brought our voices through and made a film that changes the narrative around who incarcerated people are and what we’re capable of.

Director Lynn Novick and cinematographer Buddy Squires on location at Eastern New York Correctional Facility. Skiff Mountain Films

Director Lynn Novick and cinematographer Buddy Squires on location at Eastern New York Correctional Facility. Skiff Mountain Films

Lynn and Sarah, you were granted extensive access to shoot this documentary. How did that come about? And what was that experience like for you both, on the other side of the camera?

Sarah Botstein: The Department of Corrections and Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci are really supportive of what New York state is doing in higher education; Bard is really a program they’re enormously proud of and have been supportive of for over a decade.

We were joking about this last night: I think when they initially gave us ‘unprecedented access,’ they didn’t quite know what they were getting into. They kept saying that they thought we’d come a few times a year and just be on the school floor… I think they didn’t quite realize that we would want to go and do research, spend time with the students, and time in the classrooms. We were a small, lean, efficient crew and we feel really fortunate that they gave us the access that they did, because it makes the film what it is.

Neither of us had been inside a prison before. It’s a very serious place to be. It felt really important and urgent. We were very privileged to be there in the way that we were.

Lynn Novick: One of the things we talked about a lot with our team was, if you film just the students in class, you don’t realize where they are. When we had screenings of some of the raw materials, colleagues would say, ‘wait, you have to show the audience that they’re actually doing this incredible academic work inside the context of prison.’ So we kept having to ask, ‘now we want to see the yard, we want to see people in their cells, we want to see what it’s like to walk down the hall.’

Reporters have often faced critiques of working as ‘parachute journalists,’ able to enter a space or environment and then leave while the subjects cannot. Was that something you had to reckon with?

Novick: We hope that we did not function like parachute journalists. When [Sarah and I] were working on The Vietnam War, we’d see correspondents just show up with their camera… and bring footage back home without really having much contact with what was actually happening. That’s my image of a parachute journalist. I think we tried to be the opposite, as much as possible, within the constraints that we had.

Tatro: Lynn and Sarah were there to shoot and make a film, but they were also there to learn about us in the program. As Sarah said, they spent just as much time with us in prison without cameras as they did with them. We’ve had conversations about all types of things and spent a lot of time with them, and have gotten to know them and their families. I spent my first Thanksgiving out of prison at Lynn Novick’s house. A real, deep relationship has developed during the course of this project.

Cinematographer Nadia Hallgren on location at Eastern New York Correctional Facility. Skiff Mountain Films

Cinematographer Nadia Hallgren on location at Eastern New York Correctional Facility. Skiff Mountain Films

Over the course of filming, criminal justice reform has become an increasingly urgent issue in the U.S. How did that impact the project?

Novick: In the past few years there’ve been deeper conversations about social justice and injustice generally, and I think at the beginning of this project it didn’t feel like education was in the middle of those conversations. Now it really is.

Botstein: When we started preparingPBS would ask us what we were working on, and we’d say, ‘We want to make this film about an amazing college prison program.’ And people were like, ‘Okay, that’s interesting.’

By the time we started shooting in 2014 [and in the years since]… the conversation around criminal justice reform, and where higher education sits in that conversation, became more and more dynamic. It was unfolding in real-time — the personal transformative education that students were getting; the politics were changing so quickly. It became a very different story.

Tatro: You see it in the film. Politics becomes a character, [becomes] a bit of a motif… and how it changes throughout is really interesting to watch.

Dyjuan, the documentary explores the fact that both you and your brother have been incarcerated. You were able to obtain a degree while your brother was not, because BPI does not operate out of the prison where he was held. How has it been for each of you maneuvering life after incarceration, you with a degree and him without one?

Tatro: The difference is very stark to me. I actually have two brothers, one older and one younger. They’ve both been incarcerated. And when I look at the types of things that have been available to me coming out of prison versus the opportunities that they’ve had without a college degree, and more importantly, without a college education — that drives my work every day. I’m [now] the government affairs officer at the Bard Prison Initiative. I’m back with BPI working to expand access to college in prison for currently incarcerated men and women, and I’m working specifically right now on attaining public funding for the work that we do.

If we’re going to meet the problem at scale, we need public funding in this space — so men like my brothers can have access to the same opportunities that I had, because it was life changing.

The documentary includes critical discussion of BPI; specifically, one student’s mother objects to the fact that her incarcerated child gets a free education while she has to pay to educate her siblings. What do you make of that criticism?

Tatro: I think it’s a really important scene. One of the things it highlights for me is just how powerful the rhetoric [that we shouldn’t support college in prison] has been. We need to be thinking about how we want people to come back into society. Ninety five percent of people in prison are going to be released; how do we want them returning back to their communities?

College in prison is cost-effective, so this is not really a concern about taxpayer money. It’s really a question of punishing people, right? Prison in this society functions to punish people. So if we want prison to be a reformative space, we have to give people access to education. BPI’s argument is for college in general, not in particular. This is a program that highlights how important college and the educational experience is to everyone in this country.

Botstein: We tend to marry the question of the cost of higher education and education in prison, and those things are separate. The rising cost of education shouldn’t actually directly factor into how you feel about the cost of educating people who are incarcerated.

Novick: And I think there’s one more layer that we don’t always focus on: educational equity in our society does not exist. The vast majority of people who are incarcerated have not had access to education before being incarcerated. And that may be partly how they ended up being incarcerated. Where do we sit as a society in terms of the American dream and equal opportunity?

Producer Sarah Botstein and cinematographer Buddy Squires on location at Taconic Correctional Facility. Skiff Mountain Films

Producer Sarah Botstein and cinematographer Buddy Squires on location at Taconic Correctional Facility. Skiff Mountain Films

Lynn and Sarah, what do you want viewers to take away from your documentary?

Botstein: We always say we hope the film will raise two really important questions: who in our country should, and does have access to education? And what is prison for? We hope people think about how those two questions intersect with the systemic issues of race and poverty, and what is broken about our country.

I will also say, one of the things, at least on the filmmaking side, that we couldn’t have told you six years ago is that in the sea of really dark hard problems that our country faces, this is the story of hope, and energy and a little bit of brightness. I don’t want to sugarcoat it, but I think it’s a solvable problem. We want our viewers to think about how they can help solve it.

And Dyjuan, as someone in the documentary, what do you want viewers to take away?

Tatro: I want people to acknowledge the amount of humanity and potential that we have locked away in this country, and think about the ways in which we can make a more inclusive society for us all.

The second part of College Behind Bars airs tonight, Nov. 26, at 9 p.m. EST. and is available to stream at

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Review – “College Behind Bars” is a nuanced look at education in the prison industrial complex

BPI students at Eastern New York Correctional Facility in an advanced bachelor’s degree seminar.

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

PBS’ four-hour series examines what it means to be a prisoner and a student in an effort to fix systemic injustice

It’s a common nightmare for anyone who attended college: just as you’re preparing to sit down to write your undergraduate thesis, you reach for your notes — the culmination of months and months of research — and they’re gone. Completely disappeared. But in most of these dreams, the notes are just missing. They’ve not been confiscated (and then conveniently lost) by prison officials.

This is just one of the many little moments in “College Behind Bars,” a four-part, two-night documentary series by Lynn Novick, that establishes the inherent tensions between existing as both a prisoner and a student. Throughout the series, we’re introduced to incarcerated men and women across a series of New York State correctional facilities who are enrolled in the free Bard Prisoner Initiative (BPI).

Novick is probably best known for her work with renowned documentarian Ken Burns, who serves as this series’ executive producer; on past collaborative projects, she often handled the task of conducting interviews. Her ability to secure a revealing, thoughtful interview is on full display in this series — especially in the first episode, during which inmates explain how they entered the prison system and what led them to enrolling in college-level courses.

These stories are intermingled with the history of the BPI program, and it’s a deliberately slow start (one that, for what it’s worth, feels very on-brand for PBS) that sets a solid foundation for the three subsequent parts. Novick uses the inmates’ narratives as a way to gently enter into big-picture topics like recidivism, mass incarceration, and rehabilitation, parsing through the public politics of prison and revealing the deeply human stories within.

“College Behind Bars” spotlights the euphoria of its subjects’ academic accomplishments — like watching one student begin to grasp intermediate Mandarin — without turning a blind eye to the horrific acts that led them to prison, nor ignoring the often difficult home lives and traumatic experiences that informed their decisions. It makes a compelling case for the benefits of higher education in a prison environment, allowing participants to both mentally move beyond their pasts while also carving out future opportunities.

A set of voices that’s missing from Novick’s series is that of the prison guards; the union that represented them didn’t want them to appear in the docuseries, and their appearances are blurred. Their presence is definitely felt, though. There’s an instance when a prisoner is charged with incitement, and subsequently put in solitary confinement, after his creative writing assignment is found to contain violent rhetoric. He was essentially punished for completing his homework.

One of the strongest elements of “College Behind Bars” is that it assesses all the complexities of education in the prison system. There’s nothing simple — or even particularly feel-good — about the docuseries and makes it clear that college classes aren’t an immediate fix for the prison industrial complex, systemic injustice, and mass incarceration. But one thing that’s made clear is that education shouldn’t only be a privilege for the wealthy, and that programs like BPI allow inmates access to opportunities they didn’t otherwise have outside prison walls.

“College Behind Bars” airs Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 25-26 from 9-11 p.m. ET on PBS.

‘College Behind Bars’: TV Review

BPI Students at chalkboard in classroom

Courtesy of Skiff Mountain Films

Lynn Novick’s four-hour PBS documentary about the Bard Prison Initiative and the impact of educational programs as part of prison reform is provocative and inspiring.

It’s rare that a week passes without some buried news story about states cutting back on prison education programs or even the availability and convenience of books. These measures, sometimes part of cost-trimming and sometimes part of increased privatization around prison services, come even as more and more reports and studies argue that education in the prison system actually leads to lower per-prisoner costs and that those programs are associated with dramatic reductions in recidivism rates.

If you lack the time to read those studies or just prefer human stories to statistics, Lynn Novick’s four-part PBS documentary series College Behind Bars is persuasive and compelling as an argument for prison education reform (and general across-the-board prison reform), but more than that, it’s so humane and emotional that it will probably have you brushing away tears as you’re pondering bigger questions.

Novick, revered in the PBS sphere for her collaborations with College Behind Bars executive producer Ken Burns, focuses on the men and women incarcerated at New York prisons participating in the Bard Prison Initiative, an innovative and rigorous program giving inmates the opportunity to pursue AA and BA degrees.

The four hours, premiering over two nights and yet easily binge-able as well, are designed as a steady escalation of expectations for the BPI program, while at the same time exposing audience expectations and condescension. We start off hearing about how the inmates are taking the same courses as their Bard College equivalents, and I think there’s a “Oh, that’s nice” response that runs the risk of seeming dismissive, until you see the inmates learning calculus and Mandarin and recognize the real commitment. Then you see the inmates, as part of a debate extracurricular, going head-to-head with forensics squads from West Point and Harvard and your appreciation rises to a, “This is really impressive” level.

By the time you get to the second half of the series and you watch these students working on the 80- to 100-page senior papers, defending their theses to professors and attempting to do genuine scholarly research with limited access to materials, erratically available time and the ingrained pressures and threats of the penitentiary system, you’re likely to go from respectful to astounded. I know I was.

Following students, men and women, at several maximum- and medium-security prisons, Novick is able to train her gaze on at least a dozen inmates who are candid in their fears and aspirations. Some are nearing the end of long sentences and hoping their Bard degree with help them upon their release, others are years from any hope of parole and simply trying to get value and meaning out of their incarceration and this rare opportunity. All are engaged, committed and straight-up passionate about the things they’re learning and just having this chance to learn, a chance many or most of them never would have gotten in their civilian lives. Novick distributes facts and figures throughout, positioning BPI within the context of ongoing debates about what taxpayer money should be supporting in the prison system, what private entities could or should do to help and, on the broadest and deepest level, what we think the purpose of the prison system is at all.

I suspect that if you’re of the opinion that prison is exclusively about punishment and not, to any degree, rehabilitation, College Behind Bars will have a lot of work to do to shift your opinion, but it also showcases the personalities capable of making those changes.

It’s remarkable how quickly College Behind Bars solidifies its emotional bonds to its primary subjects. Over four hours, your heart with break and your hopes will soar for inmates like Jule, the first of the incarcerated students to get to return to a world of freedom he hasn’t experienced since before 9/11; or for Dyjuan, whose brother has been incarcerated at a facility without access to BPI or a comparable program, or for Tamika, whose mother stubbornly rejects the idea that “free education” is a thing that prisoners deserve.

Over the series’ running time, the inmates let us into their cells and recount their own histories, as Novick calculatedly resists telling us about their crimes up-front, making that only a piece of their stories and not the totality. These are not, for the most part, petty criminals, and although there are threads of injustice that run through some of their pasts, this isn’t a parade of wrongfully accused innocent men and women. A common thread of “falling in with the wrong crowd” runs through many of the stories, not as an excuse or justification, but as a parallel to the importance of community-building in the BPI program. This, the series displays frequently, is what happens when those without previous opportunity or privilege fall in with the right crowd.

With producer Sarah Botstein, Novick filmed College Behind Bars over four years, but it occasionally becomes confusing when it tries to cut between character arcs and different groups of inmates in a way that implies linearity that doesn’t always exist. There are also clear gaps in her access. One of the most interesting running background threads is the tension between BPI students and non-BPI inmates and, particularly, between BPI students and the guards who may feel that these inmates, now surpassing many of the guards in advanced education, are getting special treatment. There are no interviews with guards (their union declined) or with specific prison administrators — Anthony Annucci, acting commissioner for the New York State Department of Corrections, has to speak on behalf of a lot of official entities — or with non-BPI inmates. We’re given only limited exposure to the potential struggles and failures of inmates once they’re accepted to BPI.

These are minor quibbles exposed more in retroactively considering College Behind Bars than while actually watching it, when the levels of emotional commitment and inspiration predominated. This is a project of substance and importance, but also remarkably a series that could be watched with the family during the holiday season to spark conversation and instigate a better understanding of a segment of the population that it’s easier to stigmatize or just ignore.

Airs: Monday and Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (PBS)

New PBS Documentary ‘College Behind Bars’ Explores Elite Education Program

A new PBS documentary series explores a program run by an elite East Coast college that offers degrees to a select group of incarcerated men and women.

“College Behind Bars” focuses on the rigorous Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) and the struggles of the participants who are trying to turn their lives around.

Filmmaker Lynn Novick, a 30-year documentary partner of Ken Burns, was immediately drawn to the BPI students she met in 2012 during a promotional tour of her film “Prohibition” along with producer Sarah Botstein.

“[I] didn’t know much about the Bard Prison Initiative,” Novick said. “We went into the class. We showed clips like we always did. And we had the most interesting, substantive, provocative, profound conversation we had about that film anywhere.

“Those students were the smartest and most thoughtful and the most engaged. They asked the most interesting questions. As we left the presentation that night, we turned to each other and we said, ‘Wow, that was really extraordinary. Everybody in the world needs to see this.’ And that set us on the path ultimately of making this film,” she said.

Dyjuan Tatro, who serves as a government affairs associate for BPI, had a very long and difficult road to getting his job. He was serving time in prison when he first heard about BPI on “60 Minutes.”

“It took me six years to get from where I was to where BPI was, but I got there and I got in and changed my life,” said Tatro, who earned a degree through the program and has since been released from prison. He now works for BPI to increase awareness and funding for college in prison.

“The need for what we do and the demand for what we do is greater than access,” said Tatro. The year he was accepted to BPI, about 150 people applied and only 15 were accepted into the program.

The film was shot over four years in both maximum and medium security prisons in New York state.

“We wanted to capture people over time, over four years, because we felt that we could understand how transformative education can be, to see people actually going through the process of that transformation. And even though we kind of knew that would happen, it was still rather surprising to be able to see it on film,” Novick said.

The three-person BPI debate team, of which Tatro was a member, made international news for beating the Harvard debate team in 2015.

“Beating Harvard was amazing,” he said. “We just had a follow-up article come out in The Wall Street Journal some weeks ago and it was trending on Apple News and so it’s an amazing story.”

Both Novick and Tatro hope the four-part series will make viewers think twice about the cost of incarceration and what could be accomplished behind bars.

“What I’d like people to take away from my story in this film is just the amount of potential that we’ve locked away in this country and left untapped and have them reimagine who those people in prison are and recognize and acknowledge their humanity and think of ways to recreate programs like the Bard Prison Initiative in their home states,” said Tatro.

“We just want everyone to think about the fact that we in the larger society have incarcerated 2.2 million people at the cost of $80 billion a year,” Novick said. “Most of them do not have access to education, and many of them have the majority didn’t have access to high quality education before they were incarcerated. And so just to think, what are we doing as a society? Why are we doing that? I think we don’t have that conversation often enough.”

“College Behind Bars” airs on WTTW at 9 p.m. Monday. See the full schedule.

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Vulture: In College Behind Bars, Prisoners Step Into the Classroom

Ted Alcorn writes about BPI Alumnus Rodney Spivey-Jones’s ('17) unique experience of watching himself in a screening of the documentary film College Behind Bars, behind bars. The article, reproduced below, first appeared in Vulture, from New York Magazine.  From the article: Spivey-Jones had already seen earlier… Read More