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Documentary On Bard Prison Initiative To Air On PBS


A documentary about the Bard Prison Initiative airs Monday and Tuesday nights on PBS stations. “College Behind Bars” explores the lives of a dozen incarcerated men and women as they struggle to earn degrees in the Bard Prison Initiative, one of the most rigorous prison education programs in the country.

It’s award-winning filmmaker Lynn Novick’s solo directorial debut, and she produced the film with Sarah Botstein. Ken Burns is executive producer. The project began in 2013. During filmmaking, Botstein says the politics around criminal justice reform were changing.

“When we first got introduced to the workings of BPI and decided to make the film, the politics around criminal justice reform widely and then specifically about higher education and its place in criminal justice reform was not at the center of our national conservation,” says Botstein. “Over the course of making the film, for those who see it, politics becomes a character in the film and the politics of how we ended up in a situation where college in prison was taken out of facilities, then people trying to figure out on a state-by-state basis how to reintroduce it, and then Obama in 2016 with the reintroduction of some eligibility for Pell, politics really, really changed. And I think Lynn and I never thought we would find ourselves at the center… higher education being at the center of the national conservation about criminal justice reform and the film’s shining a light on the importance of education as a piece of that.”

She notes that higher education had declined precipitously after 1994, when Congress ended federal Pell Grants for inmates. Here’s Lynn Novick:

“I think Sarah and I both felt very strongly that we could make a film that would bring to the fore voices of incarcerated men and women whose voices haven’t really been heard so much in our conversations about criminal justice reform, and that it was really important to find a way to make a film in which they would tell their own stories. And that required building trust and relationships over time. And we couldn’t have made the film without doing that,” Novick says. “And it’s been really wonderful to see so many of the students that we got to know while they were incarcerated are no longer incarcerated, and they’re out in the world doing really incredible things and helping us promote the film and talk about their relationship to the film and to the Bard Prison Initiative and their lives prior to incarceration.”

Dyjuan Tatro was a BPI student originally from Albany.

“When Lynn and Sarah showed up at Eastern, it wasn’t a given that we were going to participate in this film, right. And so I remember very vividly I went into a debate practice — I was on the debate team — we were preparing for a debate and went into a debate practice, and we debated whether or not we would participate in the film. And it came down to two things. We looked at Lynn and Sarah’s records over the past 20 or 30 years with Ken Burns. We wanted to tell a different type of story about the men and women who are incarcerated in this country,” Tatro says. “Much of what we see about incarcerated people is depressing, it is stigmatizing. And, you know, when I watch this film today, “College Behind Bars” is a story about inspiration; it is about hope. And the film is much more than I ever thought it could and would be. And so that is just a testament to the caliber of these women as filmmakers and also their relationship to us and the subject.”

Giovannie Hernandez describes why he feels BPI and its graduates are successful.

“It’s dedicated to really treating the student like a student and not like an incarcerated student or an incarcerated person,” says Hernandez. “It’s really just treating the person like a person, like a human and holding them to the standards that you would anyone else who’s a student in the top college anywhere else in the country, right?”

For Tatro:

“I received a liberal arts education, and that type of education, being educated in history, in math, in biology, in literature, in the social sciences, that raw type of education really, really helped me to come to understand my own history and my own narrative and helped me relate to the world and society and think about my place in society in a different way,” says Tatro. “And so my education up to that point had been very narrow and it had been what you call an academic, sort of a banking style of education where you just… facts are deposited into you. Liberal arts education really got me engaged, made me a critical thinker and has changed the way I think about world.”

“What are you doing now?” asks Dunne.

“Today, I am the government affairs officer at the Bard Prison Initiative, and I raise public funding specifically for college in prison,” says Tatro.

Hernandez is a client services associate with the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. “College Behind Bars” shows BPI students – most of whom did not finish high school – being held to the same high academic and intellectual standards as the undergraduates at Bard, a private liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, in Dutchess County, New York. The Bard Prison Initiative currently enrolls 300 men and women in six prisons, and costs $6,000 per student per year, most of it privately funded. Again, Novick:

“There’s more than 600 alums who’ve graduated from the program and come home in the last 20 years. And the success of those alums is worth noting. They’re involved in many different fields. Some are doing social justice work and community services,  quite a few but also people working in businesses, in public health, in education, have gone on to get graduate degrees from Yale, from  Columbia, and from Cornell, in a whole range of careers, actually,” Novick says. “And so it points to the fact that we have this enormous untapped pool of talent languishing behind walls, that people are being warehoused instead of getting access to higher education,  which they probably didn’t have access to, for the most part, before being incarcerated. And, the recidivism rate for people who’ve gone through the program and come home, under 4 percent, compared to 60 percent nationally. So it’s, sort of, all the BPI alums who are out in the world are walking advertisements why this type of program is so effective and so essential.”

Replicating the Bard Prison Initiative will take changing minds about reform, and a reset in societal thinking.

“Lynn and I often say when asked about this film that the film raises two essential questions: Who in our country should and does have access to educational opportunity? And what is prison for? And how those two questions intersect with the systemic crisis we have in this country around race and poverty,” says Botstein. “And we do, I think, to what you’re saying, think we need to rethink how we are addressing those central questions about the fabric of American society.”

All of the BPI students featured in the film are serving time for serious, often violent offenses.

“We have this opportunity and this solution where education in prison can play a real role in getting people back into society in a way that serves the public good. And we have to be willing,” Tatro says. “And one of the things that this film does courageously is that it takes on the issue of violent crime. We’ve been having a criminal justice conversation in this country that goes after the low-hanging fruit, and this film is aiming higher.”

Tatro says they’ve showed the film in a number of correctional facilities over the last few months.

“So, one of the things I hope for this film is that it will be…  it will convince lawmakers, it’ll convince the county that college in prison is something worth investing in, and that it serves the public interest,” says Tatro.

The four-hour series “College Behind Bars” airs on PBS tonight and Tuesday night. The documentary will then be available for streaming.

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