Enrichment Education

What happened after a team of prisoners beat Harvard in a debate

Prison fence
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Story at a glance

  • A remarkable education program has had tremendous success teaching participants while they are incarcerated.
  • Roughly half of all prisoners end up back in jail after they serve their sentences, but graduates of the Bard program return at a rate of only 2 percent.
  • The documentary is executive produced by Ken Burns and directed by his long-time partner, Lynn Novick. Their collaborations include “The Civil War,” “Baseball: The Tenth Inning,” “Jazz” and “The Vietnam War.” 

Lynn Novick’s eye for compelling narratives doesn’t blink. When the filmmaker screened her 2011 PBS docuseries “Prohibition” for the student inmates of New York state’s Bard Prison Initiative, she knew she had come across another story worth telling.

“We had a profoundly interesting, provocative conversation with them — provocative in the best sense, because it was intellectually provocative,” says Novick, who had co-directed “Prohibition” with longtime collaborator Ken Burns. “They asked the best questions. They were the most serious. They were the most engaged. They were the most sophisticated.”

By the time Novick and fellow producer Sarah Botstein had left the prison, the idea had already burrowed its way into their collective consciousness.

“We looked at each other,” Novick recalls, “and just said, ‘Wow, someone should really make a movie about this.’”

That “someone,” it turned out, was them. With Botstein onboard as a producer, Novick set out to direct what became the four-part PBS docuseries “College Behind Bars.” Executive produced by Burns, the documentary examines mass incarceration through the stories of a dozen inmates enrolled in the Bard Prison Initiative.

Funded by Bard College, largely through private donations, BPI allows 300 inmates spread over six New York facilities to pursue a Bard education. Such opportunities have been rarely afforded to inmates in the U.S. since President Clinton’s sweeping 1994 crime bill banned incarcerated students from using federal Pell Grants.

Views on the subject are changing. The Restoring Education and Learning Act, which would reinstate Pell eligibility for inmates, was introduced earlier this year in Congress with bipartisan sponsorship. But when the “College Behind Bars” team began work on the documentary in 2013, the issue was far from a hot-button topic.

“It was a bit of a hard sell, to be honest,” says Novick, who taught an eight-week seminar on filmmaking at BPI before starting the documentary. “We weren’t sure what would happen, and we didn’t really know how we would do it, to be honest. It was really a leap of faith.”

Early on, Novick and Botstein visited the maximum security Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, N.Y. — the prison most prominently featured in “College Behind Bars” — but left behind the cameras. Before filming interviews, they wanted to focus on building relationships with the student inmates. Those early off-camera discussions forged a trust that ultimately helped the crew secure nearly 400 hours of footage for the four-hour documentary.

“For me and a lot of people, that was a big factor in why we decided to participate in the film,” says Giovannie Hernandez, a BPI alumnus whose time behind bars is depicted in the documentary. “We believed in them. We believed that they would tell our stories the way we want our stories to be told.”

The statistics surrounding BPI’s effectiveness speak for themselves: National recidivism — the percentage of inmates who end up back behind bars after release — hovers around 50 percent, but just 2 percent of BPI graduates return to prison.

Although “College Behind Bars” uses such numbers to educate its audience about BPI’s influence, as well as the broader issues affecting the American penal system, the documentary mostly focuses on capturing the individual stories of the students. By revisiting the inmates’ dark pasts, spending time with their families and exploring their educational passions, Novick puts a human face on a sprawling subject.

“When it comes to crime and criminality in America, the thinking is reductionist,” says Dyjuan Tatro, another BPI alumnus featured in the documentary. “We tend to reduce people down to the [crimes] that they have committed. One of the things that the film does is bring audiences to acknowledge the humanity of the people in the film.”

Filming on “College Behind Bars” took place from 2014 to 2017, as Novick aimed to track one set of students’ four-year path to a BPI degree. In addition to an emotionally charged graduation ceremony, the docuseries’ final episode includes another climactic event: The Eastern Correctional Facility’s October 2015 debate victory over Harvard University.

Tatro, who competed in the headline-generating debate, says inmates must cope with a “huge culture of low expectations, so being able to really turn that on its head and defy those expectations was really, really meaningful.”

“What we see in the film is incredible untapped potential,” Novick adds. “Some of the most brilliant students and the greatest intellectual capacity are in places where we don’t expect it, and where we have basically, as a society, just said, ‘We’re not going to provide resources because there’s nothing there.’ That’s just a horrendous miscarriage of justice, and a waste for our society, frankly.”

Parts one and two of “College Behind Bars” are available to stream on PBS.org, with parts three and four airing at 9 p.m. on Nov. 26.

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