As state and federal lawmakers debate how to address jail overcrowding, spiraling incarceration costs, and other criminal justice reforms, a forthcoming PBS documentary considers a more fundamental question: What is prison for? Is it simply a place to warehouse those who have broken the law, or is it a place to rehabilitate offenders and enable them to reenter society as productive citizens.
College Behind Bars explores that issue through the lens of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that offers free college classes in six New York state prisons for men and women. The documentary, which premieres this fall on KET, is produced and directed by Lynn Novick and executive produced by Ken Burns, the team that has created many acclaimed historical documentaries for PBS.
Novick appeared on KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw to preview her documentary. The program also included two BPI graduates featured in the film.
Novick’s production credits include sweeping documentaries about the Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War, as well as histories of baseball and jazz, But with College Behind Bars, she tackles a contemporary political and social issue: the nature of incarceration.
“If we do have prisons,” Novick says, “we should be using that opportunity to get the people that are there a chance to transform themselves and to leave prison in a better position to become members of society.”
These issues began to occupy Novick in 2012 after she and long-time colleague Sarah Botstein visited a BPI class in a maximum-security prison to discuss their documentary about prohibition. They found a group of students hungry for a thoughtful discussion about that period American history.
That’s when she and Botstein decided to make College Behind Bars. With their production team, they spent four years filming classes and interviewing students, their family members, teachers, BPI administrators, and prison officials. They whittled down the 400 hours of material they collected into a two-part, four-hour documentary for PBS.
“It’s a very hard process of distilling and focusing over time,” Novick says, “and then wrestling the material to the ground with our editors. That was a several year process.”
Making College Classes in Prison a Reality
Novick hopes her film will foster public dialogue about criminal justice reform and the role education can play in rehabilitating individuals in prison. Up until 1994, college classes were commonly available in many American prisons. But the federal crime bill that passed that year banned inmates from receiving federal Pell Grants to help them pay for those classes. When inmates could no longer afford their tuition, those learning opportunities disappeared.
The Bard Prison Initiative was the brainchild of a Bard College student, who worked with his classmates to convince school administrators, New York correctional officials, and donors to create BPI. The tuition-free program launched in 2001 and now serves about 300 full-time student-inmates each year. They can select from more than 165 academic courses taught by college professors and visiting lecturers.
“I continue to be impressed every day with the level of sophistication and engagement with the material, and the seriousness of purpose that the students have,” says Novick.
Since 2001, BPI has awarded nearly 550 tuition-free degrees. The initiative also provides transitional services for alumni upon their release to help them adjust to life on the outside. The result is that BPI graduates have a 2.5 percent recidivism rate. The average recidivism rate in the United States is almost 68 percent within three years of release.
’Amazing Things Can Happen’
Novick is traveling the nation to preview the film and attend town-hall forums about criminal justice reform. She stopped in Louisville in June for a KET event featuring Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley and Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Derrick Ramsey. Two BPI graduates featured in the documentary accompanied her on the Louisville trip: Tamika Graham and Salih Israil.
“I want the outside world to see what takes place behind bars and the struggles that you endure, especially while trying to get an education,” says Graham, who got an associate degree in liberal arts through BPI. She’s now working as a criminal justice reform advocating and taking classes to complete her bachelor’s degree.
Israil got a language and literature degree from BPI and then took additional courses in computer science. Now he operates his own information technology and data solutions business.
“Every chance I get I want to share what [BPI] meant for me, and what it could mean for anyone else who gets the opportunity,” says Israil, “particularly for men and women who are incarcerated who otherwise didn’t have that opportunity.”
In one critical scene in the documentary, Graham’s mother visits her in prison. They end up in a heated exchange with the mother asking why Graham should get a free education in prison while she has to pay to put her other children who aren’t incarcerated through traditional college.
Graham says her mother is actually proud of her for being able to get a degree while incarcerated. She says she was determined to derive some benefit from her prison experience.
“I made a mistake. I’m not going to allow that mistake to dictate the rest of my future,” says Graham. “I’m not going to allow that mistake to dictate who I am, and I’ll be darned if I leave out of here with nothing. There was just no way that I was going to sit behind bars and not gain anything.”
Graham says many people like her mother don’t want tax dollars paying to educate inmates. But she’s quick to point out that BPI receives no government funding, but instead operates largely on donations and foundation grants.
“The tax-paying dollars are going to all the things that’s wrong in a prison… the disrespect, the inhumane treatment, the unhygienic environment, the toxic environment,” Graham says. “It’s not going towards anything that’s going to help someone not return” to prison.
Israil says he grew up thinking that sitting in a classroom was punishment. He says some of that feeling came from living in a neighborhood that had the worst schools. That’s what made having free access to a quality education so transformative, he says.
“What BPI has done,” says Israil, “is when you allow someone to think beyond where they’re at, you give them the opportunity to think beyond where they’re at, amazing things can happen.”
’People Are Capable of Change’
Novick says she’s grateful to Graham, Israil and the other BPI students who allowed the production crew to film them in prison, and in some cases after their release.
“All the students that we engaged with for this project feel it’s very important for the world to understand what this educational opportunity has meant for them,” says Novick. “It would be a way to share their story and their experiences and hopefully that would show the rest of the world why this is important and we should be doing more of it.”
Novick says BPI provides a lesson about the tyranny of low expectations that Americans place on some people in society. She contends we shouldn’t assume that some individuals aren’t capable of academic accomplishment just because of where they come from, how they were raised, or the crime they committed.
“People are capable of change,” she says. “But if we don’t give people the tools and the access to the information and the resources to do that, then we’re not holding true to our ideals as Americans.”
College Behind Bars airs the November on KET and PBS stations nationwide. watch a preview of the documentary below.