Some of America’s ‘Most Terrific’ Students are Behind Bars

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College Behind Bars

Still from "College Behind Bars," courtesy PBS

The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act has been in the news this fall, as Democratic candidates for president debate the pros and cons of a law which some charge was a major driver of America’s mass incarceration crisis.

About one component of the law, which eliminated Pell grants that supported higher education programs in correctional facilities across the U.S., however, there has been little debate about its impact. Thousands of inmates lost the chance to gain the educational skills they needed to help them find employment after release—and to successfully navigate the journey back to civil society.

A few initiatives stepped in to fill the educational void—most notably the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), founded in 1999 by undergraduates at Bard College in New York State, which supports college-level classes for inmates in six state prisons. As the momentum grows for reviving Pell grants for incarcerated individuals, a new four-part PBS documentary executive produced by Ken Burns, College Behind Bars, examines the achievements of the BPI program.

The Crime Report’s Julia Pagnamenta recently spoke with Max Kenner, BPI’s founder, Jule Hall and Giovannie Hernandez, two BPI alumni featured in the film, as well as College Behind Bars director Lynn Novick and producer Sarah Botstein about the ways in which the documentary reaches beyond the BPI program to examine the failures and inadequacies of the U.S. educational system and the “moral argument” that has driven opposition to higher education in prisons, and ultimately the merits of a liberal arts education.

The conversation has been edited for space and clarity. College Behind Bars will air on local PBS stations on Nov. 25 and Nov. 26 at 9/8 Central Time, and will be available for online streaming.

 The Crime Report: Max, you say in the documentary that BPI students aren’t treated any differently than if they were students on Bard’s main Annandale campus. Please elaborate.

Max Kenner: I think that as a college, we are in the market for terrific students. We are in the market for people who are eager to take advantage of what we have to offer, and we are proactive in trying to find those people who are otherwise not engaged by systems of higher learning, or [by] our colleges and universities in the United States. It’s both somewhat obvious once you think about it, and essentially tragic. [It’s] unbelievable, once you identify that last challenge, and take it on, that the first, and most obvious place to look for that wasted, disengaged talent in America is our sprawling, and unbelievably oversized prison system.

TCR: In the documentary, biology professor Mike Tibbetts says his students at BPI came with a “sense of urgency.” Did incarceration change your relationship to education?

Giovannie Hernandez, former BPI student: In my experience, education prior to my BPI curriculum had always been something prescriptive. You were a passive receiver of information. You were made to memorize these things. You were just basically made to take these things for granted. However, BPI encouraged you to question these things. It was not, “here take this information.” It was, “here what do you think about this information?”

We were asked to process on our own terms. How we understood it, and sort of guide it in a way that really developed my ability to process, not only ideas, helped me understand myself and my position in the world much more clearly. The way I make decisions now, it is more of a process. What is the worst thing that can happen? What is the best thing that can happen? What are the different ways that you can do this? That happens automatically now.

Jule Hall, former BPI student: The urgency came from the fact that we were adult learners, and we had been removed from the opportunities that education had provided us, and then while we were incarcerated, we started to realign our values to the things that we wanted to aspire to, and we saw education as a tool for that.

Jule Hall

Jule Hall

I would say that the way we engaged the program was not with a sense of urgency. We left that for Max [Kenner] and the administrators to be concerned with. Our urgency came from the idea that I want to absorb and learn as much as I can. This is something that is beneficial to me now in the present circumstance of being incarcerated, because it gives me a new perspective on the world, and how I could impact the world. But also we had that awareness that in the future, we will be released, and we wanted to be released in a manner productive for our families, as well as [for] the society we return to.

TCR: The political conversation around educational programs in prison has changed since BPI began in 1999. There’s an increase in bipartisan support for the grants, but a 2014 initiative by Gov. Andrew Cuomo for tax-payer funded educational programs in prisons was rejected. Opponents claim it would providing those convicted of crimes with a free ride paid for by taxpayers. Why is there such moral outrage?

Kenner: People who ran prisons, advocates, community members, and quite a few of victims’ rights organizations felt differently in the 1990s and early 2000s, than they do now. But there was still a general consensus of experts that college in prison, education in prison, was the best investment. So there was a disagreement in our community that went on for quite a long time about how to respond to the visceral [opposition] you describe. It took a lot of effort to persuade our colleagues that the fact that this work is (a) inexpensive and (b) saves enormous amounts of money in the future is actually unpersuasive.

College in prison at the time cost the Pell program about $35 million. (But) the same people who made that argument advocated for a bill which dedicated $10 billion to new prison construction. There was enough money in that bill to fund college for 200 years. So we couldn’t afford college, but we could afford the new prisons that actually made things worse. The vast majority of people who didn’t vote for the bill, or abstained objected to the low number of dollars dedicated to prison construction. $10 billion was not enough.

[Instead] we believe the only way you can make real change in this issue is by persuading the general public to think of people ensnared in the criminal justice system, people ensnared in prisons and jails, as real people. As people who could be family members, or neighbors. The moral argument carried the day in the 1990s, and it will carry the day today. People do not care about money in this context; and if they tell you they do, you should know you can’t believe them.

TCR: Which brings us to BPI’s funding. Most of it comes from private donations?

Kenner: Historically, that has been true. We are one of a very small handful of programs that came into being after the demise of Pell, and we are generally privately funded. That is less true now.

TCR: Recently, there has been a call for increased scrutiny over the origins of private funding. What are your thoughts on this? Would BPI even exist if there had been adequate government funding for higher education programs in the criminal justice system? 

Max Kenner

Max Kenner

Kenner: There is no question that there are pros and cons to each. We couldn’t exist and raise money the way we do if we weren’t proximate to New York City. It’s become easier to do in different places as wealth inequality has skyrocketed and there are more rich people. Anyone can make their own moral judgment, value judgments about that. Over the long term, and at any scale, the only way to fund these public programs is through public investments. Full and total stop.

Now if you are me, you have more leverage, you have more control, you have more independence if you are raising private money. That is terrific. You don’t have to report to a legislature, or a voter, or anybody else. There are institutions that exploit programs like Pell, either for profit or not-for profit institutions that provide programs that don’t really take into full account the interest or ambitions of their students. That happens. But I just want to say that we are extremely excited and very proud that for the first time in 25 years since the Crime Bill, there has been bipartisan legislation to restore Pell eligibility for incarcerated people that is due in large part to Senator Brian Schatz from Hawaii and Mike Lee from Utah.

Investing in Prison Education

We anticipate that it will become law in one form or another in the next year or year and a half, and that is a terrific thing for the country. The fact is, when education was eviscerated in our prison systems, the pretense that our Department of Corrections was about anything corrective or rehabilitative was washed away. If there is going to be hope and purpose, or any positive value in these places that we invest so many resources in, college is the place to start.

TCR: Giovannie, in the documentary you said, “I don’t believe in friends in prison, but I believe in friends in my cohort,” implying a sense of unparalleled trust in your fellow BPI students. 

Hernandez: Prison is a shared common struggle, and there is a certain fellowship that comes with that. My closest friends now are people I was formally incarcerated with, even out here, because those are the people who can understand me the most, and who I can understand [the most]. Beyond that, there is this other level: your BPI cohort. And that’s a struggle within a struggle. Like doing college is hard out here, doing college in prison is doubly hard. Not only that, but you really get to know people within class, and outside of class. BPI is a community that supports itself. I really want to see my peers succeed, just as much as they want to see me succeed.

Hall: I think it is also related to the fact that we were engaging in liberal arts. We were reading (African-American crime writer) Walter Mosley, and some of these philosophers, and we were able to see ourselves in the works that we were reading, and understand ourselves through that reading, and that’s a process, of whoever takes that journey with you, you are going to build an affinity with. But there is also a technical aspect to it; it was so rigorous that we had to band together to help each other learn the material.

We studied in little study groups. We tutored each other. There were times when Giovannie helped me with Algebra, or I might help him with a paper, so we were all aware that we were in the same situation. And just as Giovannie described, it has transferred out here because those same relationships have been maintained, if not made stronger.

TCR: In the documentary, Jule, you mention that you were interested in studying German, because since World War II, Germany has been trying to amend for its “historical mistake.” What about Germany resonated with you?

Hall: Yes, [before BPI] there was a dominant theme among the circles that I was a part of, of Germany as this racist society that committed these atrocities. Nonetheless, when I got into BPI and I saw a German magazine, it had a person of color on the cover, and it was talking about hip-hop. And I was like, “Wow, wait a minute, this isn’t the German society that I usually hear about.” As I dove further, I saw that Germany made efforts to make itself a multi-cultural society. I’ve learned from my research and readings that Germany is one of the most commendable democracies in the world today, and I just found that fascinating considering its past.

And what was key to that for better or worse, because it wasn’t all a smooth road, [is that] they actively worked to make society better. They recognized that something happened that was wrong. How do we make amends for that? I just find that so interesting in an American context, of course, with slavery, and the ways we are moving on, but we are never acknowledging that something went wrong. How can we make amends for that?

TCR: Students these days—like their professors—rely increasingly on digital material and resources to conduct their research. But due to prison circumstances, BPI students do not always have access to computers or the internet. You had to rely solely on books and physical archives. Jule, when you were writing your thesis, how did you navigate all your research needs?

Hall: The film engaged with this as well. The technological mediums that are provided in schools today are sort of a crutch. But we had to go the old-fashioned way. Look at the back of the book; see what interests us; find a footnote that it related to [and] make sure that it was related to what we wanted. I also want to say that it required a bit of innovation, not only on our part, but of the administrators. We had to test and try things in order to make things work, and I think that is what is so instructive, because that is what education is about. It’s about not just taking a normal route to achieve something, but using your head.

Access to Textbooks

In the early stages, I would [ask] any professor, “Would you happen to have access to this book or that book?” But what we did eventually as things became more organic and whole in the program, we actually had people on the campus—and I want to say the campus was so supportive of us—[where] that was their duty. We would send them a list of books. And they would pull the books out for us from the campus.

 TCR: Upon news of your impending release, Jule is filmed saying “I better brush up on my German.” At first the comment comes off as witty, since German language skills aren’t the first thing that comes to mind as a practical necessity to life post-incarceration. However, it tapped into a larger theme at the core of BPI, which is the importance of a liberal arts education.

Hernandez: What Max calls the ability to think has mapped out my trajectory since I have been home. It has helped me reacclimate to society. I’ve had an easier time than someone who might not have gone through BPI, not only because I am [more] employable, but because I can identify certain things like anxiety when it occurs. [I can] be like, All right this is not a normal response, something is going on here. I can identify and think through that. In my professional life, having a degree…that’s gold out here.

TCR: What did you major in?

Hernandez: Literature. I should have majored in the social sciences. I am a case manager now for a non-profit. And being able to think through things, being able to identify what my clients need, how they need me to show up in this interaction, that’s really on your feet. You never know how a person is going to show up, and how you have to adapt to that. So that, in a really real way, is how my education—having cultivated that ability to think quickly, to think critically—plays into my daily life.

Hall: It’s amazing how the universe works, because when I wrote my senior project there were three themes that I engaged [with]: race, women, and the intersections of culture and immigration. And it’s so ironic now that I am working for the Ford Foundation where those are the three lines of work that my team engages with. We engage with decarceration, trying to reduce mass incarceration, immigrant rights, as well as advancing gender reproductive justice, and I would have never thought that. I think it’s very important to emphasize that because we—I think I can speak for my classmates—engaged in this material with a genuine interest, and not necessarily because we thought this is going to be what I am going to do when I get out.

In fact, I think we had conversations about that. [People said] I don’t know whether this is going to help me with when I get out, but it’s so interesting, and I just love engaging with it.

A Guest Lecture Ignited the Idea

TCR: Lynn and Sarah, as the film’s director and producer, what compelled you to create a film on BPI?

Lynn Novick

Lynn Novick

Lynn Novick, Director: We got asked to give a guest lecture in a BPI classroom, at Eastern Correctional Facility in 2012. We went into this classroom to show scenes from our Prohibition film and talk about that story with just your average, ordinary BPI class. We didn’t know what that would be, and it was the most interesting, complicated, profound, serious conversation we had about our film, about Prohibition anywhere. As we were leaving, we were really impressed, and sort of astonished by the level of academic rigor about the conversation we had just had, and where it was happening, and realized that we had no idea that that existed. We sort of said to each other, Wow this would be an amazing film, but we are kind of busy. And then over time, we just decided that we just really had to make the film. I taught in the program myself.

Sarah Botstein, Producer: One of the worries we had early on, and one of the challenges we faced was that we had never made a verité film together where the drama is unfolding as you are shooting. The visual landscape is the same. So every time you go [there] you worry, “how is this visually going to sustain an audience over time?” And we found that not only were our cinematographers extraordinary at capturing both the sameness and the difference, but actually that played ultimately to a strength in the film rather than a weakness. We didn’t understand that when we started.

TCR: You filmed in medium and maximum security prisons in New York State. Did you have any trouble getting the correctional administration to grant you so much access to the facilities?

Novick: We had very unusual access, and we always want to point that out, because that is partly what makes the film so unique. That approval had to come from the top of the New York State government. So on some level it was the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections, and then in each facility it had to be interpreted and dealt with, and that was a little bit more nuanced.

But the Department of Corrections and the New York State government all understand very well that education is an essential component of helping people right through their incarceration in a productive way. And they recognize that BPI is such an extraordinary program. They really supported the idea of a film that would show that.

TCR: College Behind Bars will expose BPI to a larger audience, to viewers who may not have known it existed or realized the full extent of its educational programs. What policy outcomes do you hope this documentary elicits? 

Kenner: The thing we hope it does most of all, and this was fundamental to the decision to make this documentary in the beginning, wasn’t about policy change, though we hope it moves the needle on Pell. It isn’t about fundraising, though we hope that more people that know about us find our work appealing and maybe support us at one point or another. We rely on private contributions. That’s not what inspired us to do this. What inspired us to do this is the cynicism even of many of our best and well-intentioned supporters in government, in philanthropy, even in higher education. The cynicism of the capacity of our students. The level of their achievement, and the joy with which they go about their learning, demanded to be documented.

I can walk into a philanthropic foundation and talk all day about how well our students do, [but] nobody believes how well they actually do until they see it for themselves. They have an idea in their minds of someone doing something mediocre and that’s just fine, and that’s a good use of money. That’s not what happens. BPI students achieve things in undergraduate classrooms at the same level as any college in the United States. That says an enormous amount about not only what a waste our prison systems are, and can be, but also how we distribute education resources in the United States. And the cynicism and disregard with which we treat young people from communities of color, but also across the board. When it comes to education the expectations and disregard with which we treat young people in the United States is an outrage.

There are two things I love most when I watch this documentary. The first is to think about all the ways incarcerated people are typically represented on broadcast television. Just how barbaric, and dishonest, and gratuitous those representations are, and watching this film in the context of that normal is an amazing thing. Second thing I love to do when I watch this movie is, everyone is going to assume that the filmmakers picked the brightest, most articulate, most good looking characters, just like social scientists and donors always think we just skim the best.

When I look at their [Novick and Botstein’s] film, I love looking in those classrooms, at all the people who aren’t major characters, knowing how curious and ambitious, and articulate and generous, all of them are. We could have picked two or three more casts that would have been just as good as the group in the film, not over the twenty years of doing the work, [but] at the moment the film was being produced.

Novick: As it happens when we started the film [in 2014], this didn’t feel like a front and center issue, and now it’s much more in our national conversation, and that’s really exciting. The film can help maybe inform the conversation at the minimum, and drive citizens to ask, “Why don’t we have more [education programs] in a facility or in a state?” Just questioning our public officials about what they are doing.

That’s a good start. Our lead institutions of higher learning that have enormous endowments—what are they doing with all that money, and who are they educating? Who are they deeming worthy of their intellectual gifts? Those are big questions.

TCR: When the BPI debate team won against Harvard in 2015, it made international headlines. The documentary shows a few headlines and clips, however, that turned Harvard’s loss against BPI into a joke, solidifying this narrative of underestimation that the general public has of incarcerated people. 

Kenner: When that happened there was enormous, global fanfare, and there was very little pushback of [the kind] you were alluding to before, and that surprised me. In this field, we have a history of being afraid of our own shadow a little bit. It taught me something about how we think about these issues in the United States.

One of the first things you learn is how much people like to see Harvard lose. That was real, and you can’t talk about it without mentioning that, but also talking about cynicism, how typically in the United States when we talk about increasing educational access or opportunity, particularly when we talk about doing it for free, the thing that people hear in their minds is that we are providing some kind of handout, or that we are lowering standards to provide something for people that they haven’t earned. And the symbolism of defeating in an objectively judged debate the most prestigious, and famous, and elite university in the United States, signals to people implicitly that this was not a handout, that the education was real, and the accomplishments were genuine, and therefore in that context, that kind of resentment melted away. It was a terrific lesson.

Botstein: [After the Harvard debate] I left with the Harvard kids because we wanted to interview them outside of prison. I was searching for my phone to say, “They won, they won!” And then I remember talking to Max [Kenner], like what is going to happen? And then the whole world exploded, so that is just truly an adventure in the process of making the film. And then we actually had to make sure we didn’t tip the scale too much. That the debate is really a great part of BPI, but what is happening in the classroom is actually the backbone of what happens at BPI. You don’t want to overdo it, like BPI is a college with a great debate team. BPI is a great college, and like other great colleges it has a debate team. Just like it has an alumni party, just like it has a play. And that’s an important distinction.

TCR: In the documentary, one of the BPI professors, who also teaches at the main Bard campus, Donna Ford Grover, says of BPI students, “It’s like teaching graduate students.”

Kenner: Sure, people are grownups.

TCR: It is not just that they are grownups. BPI students also come in with a different set of experiences. 

Kenner: I think the reason we get such terrific faculty, and why so many wonderful teachers and academics want to teach for us, is because they recognize instantly when they are in one of our classrooms, how much is at stake for our students. Students bring a sense of gravity, and desire, and ambition and hunger, to those classrooms that [faculty] are unaccustomed to, and that is absolutely riveting and terrific if you as a faculty member, if you as an intellectual or professor, also think so much is at stake.

Julia Pagnamenta is a contributing writer at The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

One thought on “Some of America’s ‘Most Terrific’ Students are Behind Bars

  1. Yes inmates need to be focused on reading, education prepares them for the opportunities they didn’t realize on the outside. This gives them freedom and direction to pursue opportunities that they never imagined before. If prison or incarsoniation is about reform then we need to give people hope. We are Americans let’s support those who really need help.

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