PBS’s “College Behind Bars” is an inspiring, four-part documentary from Lynn Novick that airs Monday and Tuesday, taking viewers inside the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), which offers a rare opportunity for select inmates in New York’s state prison system to enroll in the same rigorous curriculum taught by professors at Bard College, where tuition alone runs $55,566 per year, says the Washington Post in a review. Of the state’s 51,000 male inmates and 2,400 female inmates, only 300 get to participate in Bard’s program, which is paid for by the college, largely through private donations. Of its graduates, recidivism is down to 4 percent, compared with a 50 percent rate overall.
As we see, there’s a simmering resentment against these students — starting with the scorn from corrections officers, none of whom could or would participate in the film. As a prison official notes, many guards might have liked to go to college, but never got the chance. It can be galling to watch a group of inmates debating gene therapy in a philosophy class, or parsing “King Lear” in English lit, or brushing up on their intermediate Chinese. Some limelight came for Bard’s student inmates in 2015, when their debate team beat Harvard’s. It got people interested in the broader benefits of such a program. As an inmate says, it’s called the department of corrections. What’s more corrective than learning? Their lives as students are far from cushy. The inmates note their past failures in the classroom and in life (many are in for murder or manslaughter). They enter the Bard program still struggling to write a cohesive paragraph or make sense of the first page of a reading assignment, “doing their best to be brave in the face of probably some of the hardest material they’ve ever encountered,” says literature professor Christina Mengert.