« "Let’s pardon prisoners, not turkeys" | Main | Two new disconcerting reports on southern justice »

November 23, 2019

DVR alert for new documentary, "College Behind Bars"

CBB-hero_18x7Thanks to seeing this recent USA Today article, headlined "'Undoing a mistake': Ken Burns film looks inside the push to bring college education back to prison," I just set my DVR to record what looking like an important documentary for all policymakers and reform advocates.  Here are some highlights from the lengthy press article:

Stacks of books are organized meticulously by genre amid the chaos of a maximum security prison.  A makeshift desk made from cardboard is placed over a sink in a cramped cell. A chalkboard is filled with Chinese symbols in a room filled with eager students in green jumpsuits. Late night studying. This isn’t the picture most Americans have of prison.

More often than not, violence, isolation and anger are what come to mind. But these scenes from a PBS documentary airing this month show viewers a different kind of prison life — the rigorous pursuit of higher education.

“College Behind Bars" follows students in the Bard Prison Initiative, a privately funded college program that began in 2001 in New York state prisons. For now, the roughly 300 students taking classes free of charge at the elite college are the exception. Most incarcerated individuals cannot afford a college education — and all are banned from applying for federal grants.

It wasn’t always this way. For decades, college prison programs flourished across the country. After the passage of the 1994 Crime Bill, Pell Grants were banned for those who are incarcerated. For the first time in more than two decades, a push to lift this ban is sparking bipartisan support. Last month, Congress introduced bills that would reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for those incarcerated as part of wider college affordability legislation.

For formerly incarcerated individuals, educational experts and advocates, it’s about time. They argue that post-secondary education behind bars will lower the likelihood that an individual returns to prison and that it will benefit society as whole. “Ninety-five percent of people who are in prison will get out,” Ken Burns, executive producer of the PBS film, told USA TODAY. “Do you want them as responsible, taxpaying citizens or people who have used their time in prison to hone their criminal skills?”

Incarcerated at 17, Jule Hall spent more than 20 years in prison and is one of the main figures in the PBS documentary, which airs Monday and Tuesday. The film trails Hall, a 2011 Bard Prison Initiative graduate who earned a bachelor's degree in German studies, as he navigates the parole process, is released from prison and enters the workforce.

Hall works at the Ford Foundation analyzing the impact of social justice grants — an experience he describes as "another Bard" because of the experts and cutting-edge ideas. "What BPI has achieved is exceptional, but I think it's only a small part of what can be done if we get serious about this," Hall said. "I want people to walk away from this film understanding that there are many more people who want to be involved in programs like this that are incarcerated, but they don't have the access or the possibility of doing so."

Access to education is at the heart of filmmaker Lynn Novick and producer Sarah Botstein's vision. When the two screened one of their films at a BPI class at Eastern Correctional Facility in New York, the engaging conversation they had with the inmates encouraged them to expose the program to more people. "After that one experience in the classroom, we walked out and just felt like, 'Oh my gosh, this is something everybody needs to know is happening,' " Novick said.

The official website for "College Behind Bars" is available at this link, where one can find an extended trailer and additional clips along with airing information for DVR setting.  (I realize I am showing my age when I talked about DVR setting, I expect (and hope) lots of younger folks will just stream this doc.) Here is how the documentary is briefly described on the official website:

College Behind Bars, a four-part documentary film series directed by award-winning filmmaker Lynn Novick, produced by Sarah Botstein, and executive produced by Ken Burns, tells the story of a small group of incarcerated men and women struggling to earn college degrees and turn their lives around in one of the most rigorous and effective prison education programs in the United States — the Bard Prison Initiative.

Shot over four years in maximum and medium security prisons in New York State, the four-hour film takes viewers on a stark and intimate journey into one of the most pressing issues of our time — our failure to provide meaningful rehabilitation for the over two million Americans living behind bars.  Through the personal stories of the students and their families, the film reveals the transformative power of higher education and puts a human face on America’s criminal justice crisis.  It raises questions we urgently need to address: What is prison for?  Who has access to educational opportunity?  Who among us is capable of academic excellence? How can we have justice without redemption?

November 23, 2019 at 11:49 AM | Permalink

Comments

I have no doubt that pursuing education in prison is strongly correlated with future success. Those who are motivated to seek out classes and a degree are probably the most hard-working, intelligent, and resourceful inmates.

The problem is when this correlation is extrapolated - that pushing more inmates into education will make them motivated and intelligent. Probably it will only shit up the current education opportunities and waste a lot of money.

Posted by: Pete | Nov 24, 2019 1:22:31 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB