On September 18, the Prison University Project welcomed filmmaker Lynn Novick and her colleagues—producer Sarah Botstein; Chris Pigott of DKC News; Julia Lourie of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI); Salih Israil, a Bard graduate and formerly incarcerated individual featured in the film; and Elitha Smith, sister of a currently incarcerated BPI alumnus featured in the film—for a screening of College Behind Bars at San Quentin for students of the College Program. This four-part documentary was executive produced by Ken Burns and features the educational journeys of a group of students in the Bard Prison Initiative, a higher education in prison program in New York. Our students and staff appreciated the opportunity to engage with the filmmakers and dialogue on changing public representation of incarcerated people.
Students spoke to the similarities of their experience studying inside with the experiences of BPI students—the psychological difficulties of being an incarcerated college student, the struggle to manage their homework and workload alongside commitments to prison jobs and other programs, a lack of study spaces and quiet time, and their redefined sense of identity as scholars, community members, and engaged citizens. The clips struck a chord for many and affirmed their belief that higher education is an opportunity to expand minds and open up new worlds. Seeing another program helped contextualize our students’ experience in a larger movement to challenge the purpose of incarceration and shift it toward a less punitive and more restorative approach. Students formally applauded the filmmakers for making the film.
Poignant clips focused on family relationships provoked the strongest emotional reactions from the students. In one scene, an incarcerated woman Tamika argues with her mother about the merits of gaining a degree in prison. Her mother believes that Tamika doesn’t deserve a free education in prison and be given opportunities that people on the outside have to pay for. As their conversation escalates in the prison visiting room, one can only feel the palpable trauma and anguish that family members of incarcerated people experience too. Elitha, who came to San Quentin on behalf of her incarcerated brother Rodney, echoed that pain, but also shared how education opened her brother up to speaking about his crime and hold himself accountable. She expressed how proud and moved she was to watch the film clips and see him vulnerably open up about what happened for the first time. The clips of Elitha and Rodney interacting together in the visiting room deeply resonated with the students as they reflected on their own family and close friends who support them from the outside.
Elitha affirmed our students’ paths through higher education by highlighting how a person who committed a crime can’t always bring their victim back or help a grieving family, but as transformed, educated, actualized individuals, they can certainly come back to help their own families and communities, and help to make the world a better place.