Former incarcerated student Jule Hall knows the power of prison education.
“When I was in BPI [Bard Prison Initiative], I saw guys who were into everything negative, but when they got to BPI they became some of the most articulate and engaged people,” Hall said in an interview with IndieWire.
The Bard Prison Initiative isn’t just changing how we see college in prison, but how we see the incarcerated people themselves. The PBS and Emmy-nominated documentary “College Behind Bars” seeks to showcase the students of BPI as well as the need for more prison college programs throughout the country.
“We all have these preconceptions and assumptions about people,” director Lynn Novick said — and she was no different.
The journey to bring “College Behind Bars” started in 2012, when Novick and producer Sarah Botstein were invited to give a lecture for BPI students. Neither had been in a maximum security prison before and were initially left shocked by the sophisticated responses from the students.
“I’m embarrassed to say that surprised us and it shouldn’t have,” she said. “We had no idea that this kind of conversation, this kind of discourse and seriousness, was happening in a prison.”
In 2013 Novick went a step further and went on to teach a BPI class in documentary and history, eventually working with Botstein to turn a lens on the students and the program. Add an additional year of getting clearances from the New York Department of Corrections, the governor’s office, Bard, and the students themselves and it wasn’t until 2019 that audiences were able to see the finished product.
For Hall, he was immediately on board with the production because “I knew [there] was something special going on that the world didn’t know about,” he said. But Novick had to work to earn the trust of her subjects. One way was to intentionally parcel out information about why her subjects were in prison. “People that we really respected would say, ‘Well, you have to explain.’ These are people who are incarcerated, so everyone’s going to want to know what they did,” she said.
But she and Botstein never wavered. Instead, they wanted to show the subjects as people. So instead of asking “What are you in for,” the questions tended to focus on school. “What are you studying? What’s your major?”
Not that Novick and Botstein avoided the issue. Novick said she knew in the context of the film they’d have to reveal why everyone was in prison, but they put the impetus on the subjects themselves. They also understood students who refused to participate in filming at all, especially considering most BPI classes, or cohorts, are 12 to 15 students.
“It’s a pretty intrusive process and you’re already talking about people who are marginalized and vulnerable, and I would say, to some degree, apprehensive about the media and how they’ve been portrayed,” she said.
That’s another reason why the group was sensitive to the reveal of criminal activities. Novick said reporters interviewing inmates tend to focus on the crime before getting to know anything else.
In a series all about upending misconceptions, the biggest one “College Behind Bars” tackles is whether prisoners deserve an education. Neither Novick nor Hall could have foreseen a global pandemic happening but, if anything, the current health crisis has put into stark relief the question of what constitutes a college education and, more importantly, who deserves access.
From a financial perspective it makes sense to educate the incarcerated, with every $1 spent on prison education saving the American taxpayer $5, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In a similar study conducted by the Vera Institute it was also found that educated inmates were 43 to 72 percent less likely to return to prison.
Hall explained that when people feel empowered — whether that’s through work, education, or a greater understanding of themselves — there’s a desire to take that back into a community and help.
“My college education, in some sense, benefits me, but it benefits society at a greater degree,” Hall said. “There [are] a lot of misconceptions and misinformation now [that] I will argue are entirely related to politics and not the interests of society.”
Novick finds it mind-boggling that questions of who deserves an education are still being discussed. “Why is [college] something that we consider to be a privilege? It should be a right. Everyone should be able to develop their potential to the best of their capacity,” she said.
But COVID-19 is also making itself known in the prison-industrial complex. Not just in the number of sick and dead inmates, but in those seeking higher education. “COVID is pushing us into spaces that we never understood or imagined,” Hall said.
He said a big benefit of the BPI program was engaging with professors and other students, both of whom are restricted or limited to Zoom currently. On top of that, and as the documentary shows, working technology is also a huge problem for incarcerated students.
“Where one [correction] institution has internet capabilities […] another institution is just doing mailings,” he said.
On top of that, the growing social unrest with regard to police officers and minorities brings up questions about the documentary’s inability to get any prison guards on-camera due to a refusal from the guards’ union. Novick said she wishes she could have presented their perspective.
“Off the record, while we were filming officers would talk to us all the time,” she said. “Some of them really support the idea of prison education and some of them don’t.”
She said it’s unsurprising that many guards don’t believe in educating inmates since college prison programs have been so sporadic.
“They’ve been inculcated in a kind of mindset that these are the worst of the worst,” she said. Her hope was that she could include these different views, if only to show that prison guards aren’t necessarily a monolith. “It’s impossible to be there and to not be aware of what you’re seeing, which is a prison that is mostly populated by Black and brown people being guarded by mostly white men,” she said. “It’s inherently dehumanizing. It’s a horrendous system and it was designed as such.”
“College Behind Bars” is streaming now on Netflix.