Bard Prison Initiative 10th Anniversary Film

[Squeak and clank of gate] Prisons are incredibly complex places and we have lived through a generation in time in which they’ve become among the
most important of our public institutions. What’s going on in them, who’s in them, what’s happening in them, what’s happening to people who work in them, what do those institutions say about us? [Max Kenner:] In our field there’s very often a just and understandable preoccupation with public investment. Over the course
of my lifetime we’ve incarcerated more and more people for longer and longer
periods of time, so often for smaller and smaller infractions of the law. As we
have done that we have made those institutions less hopeful and said to
the people within them that your fate and your future are of no concern and no
connection to us. College programs, while once common in prisons, changed in the 1990s when felons became ineligible for financial aid known as Pell grants. [Ellen Lagemann:] Even in 1994 when the omnibus crime bill took Pell Grant eligibility away from prisons, we knew
that the best strategy available to make sure people don’t come back to prison is
education, particularly college education. [Background]… possible that he’s taken on too much as far as … I didn’t even know Bard was here. Once I got here and they told me Bard was here and I realized that that was something I needed, you know, I tried
out for it. I mean, society’s given up on me. All they want is to keep me locked up and never give me a chance to go home, and that’s not what Bard believes. [Craig Wilder:] I think the liberal arts were actually the perfect place to start, you know, to
paraphrase W.E.B. Dubois, the goal of education is not to turn a man into a
bricklayer it’s actually to turn the bricklayer into a full man. And so it’s a
full education; it’s an education that actually exposes you to a whole world of ideas. I think we would be making a dreadful mistake if we thought that people who are incarcerated only needed vocational training. [Leon Botstein:] We have something that we can offer which will make a huge difference to the lives of these prisoners, to the prisons in which they live, and to their future possibilities, and that goes to the heart of what we know how to do best, which is teach. Constant begins writing this essay around the time of the final defeat of Napoleon. [Madeleine George:] If what you want is for people to move to a place of transformation you can’t start by saying, Well, here’s the strike against you, you know, that we’re always going to keep at the back of our minds. The most important thing is that we cultivate an environment where the students can come and be students, where
their value is as participants in a class only. When I’m in a classroom I’m
not affected by my current situation. Throughout the prison system we’re looked at as if we’re not even human. When we come to the classroom we’re individual college students as if we were on Bard’s campus and we have to give our all. Yes,
it’s great. You have to remember that our students will always in every walk of life be held to a higher standard whenever they apply for a job, whenever they apply to transfer to another academic institution. So it’s very hard to get in. They each take this essay test, which is intimidating; I would be
terrified. We pick about 60 for personal interviews. Two of us interview each one
of those 60 people and out of that we make the very difficult decision of
which 15 or so to admit. [Professor lecturing in background] BPI is very demanding and the expectations are extremely high. I mean, I remember my first class I could
not get an A from this woman, you know, and by the end of the class I got an A
and I got an A+ on the last paper and an A in the class but, you know, I had to
really work hard for it. You know, at this point in my life how I performed in the
program I thought that was how I would measure myself as a human being and that
brought out a tenacity in me to just go harder, study harder. [Ellen Lagemann:] In the very first class I taught one of the students in the class was writing his Senior Project
or I guess had just finished it. He brought it in for me to read and I was
blown away. The last senior thesis I had worked with was at Harvard and here was
a guy at BPI writing a senior thesis that was every bit as good as an honors
thesis at Harvard. Now, starting where that person had started and ending
up with that product was just remarkable. You say to them from the very first day,
“We are only as good as you.” So for the first time, perhaps, in many of their
lives, an institution of some prestige, an institution of some significant cultural
capital has said to them, “We see ourselves in you and we see our future
in your future.” “… the prison door. Music is blaring from a
radio. All the characters are in their individual cubes involved in some
activity.” “Hey, yo, Ratchet! Yo, Ratchet! “Turn that radio down. Here comes Mitts
with the mail.” “Yo, Raro, you know L.A. lost that game last night. You owe me four cartons now.” Playwriting is power. For a person who’s basically reduced to a number, you know, you wear a green uniform, you don’t have too many outlets where
you can express yourself. Playwriting to me became freedom. When you reach a
college level that’s when you really start getting knowledge of your
surroundings, of yourself. You start questioning politics, other religions,
other cultures, other societies, and these are things you can bring back to
the neighborhoods where we from. Growing up in Brownsville I always felt like I
would end up in prison because I didn’t feel like I had many options.
I’m now working as a case manager, working with 16 to 24 year olds with some
criminal justice system involvement within the last 12 months. People don’t
expect a lot from these kids and if people actually got to know them they would prove
almost everything wrong. You know, they aren’t lazy kids. They want to work; they’re eager to
work. They have dreams that they want to be accountants and architects and it
brings me a lot of pleasure to see them achieve their goals. [William Jett:] How are you today?
[Neighbor:] Good, how about you?
[Jett:] Fine, thank you. I first started
working with Grow NYC as a stepping stone towards my establishing a
career in environmentalism. We’re collecting food scraps for compost, trying to
encourage residents to reduce the amount of unnecessary waste that goes into the
landfill, particularly the organic waste, [Boy:] Ugh!
[Dad laughs.] I volunteer here and at other environmental organizations as a way to extend the garden project
that I started at Woodbourne. I had been inspired to build a community garden to
help formerly incarcerated people into the environmental field, training them
while they’re still incarcerated. The garden project has been going on since
2009 so I’m really proud of the guys continuing after I was released. Last
night I received an email that I’ve been accepted into NYU’s Master in Urban Planning Program, so it was really great news. I’m really excited about that
and I’m looking forward to participating and challenging myself and working towards
becoming a professional. Being good at academic work meant that
you could be an academic, and I never really had any model for that, you know?
My father didn’t go to college; my mother didn’t go to college. So the professors
really were models for what I could aspire to be. You know, I made my
incarceration history a part of my application for grad school and I tried
to frame it that way because I do believe it’s true. In ethnography there’s
a phrase, you “go native.” You know, you try to get into the lifestyle of whoever
you’re studying. I’ve been there, you know? My history gives me a unique
perspective to hopefully influence policy and move towards more socially
just policies and that’s a big part of why I’m drawn to the work I’ve been
doing and the work I want to do. I think it’s important that we ask ourselves
what this means. What does it mean when Erica Mateo returns to Brownsville,
Brooklyn? What does it mean when Manny Borras is making artwork at the Public
Theater? As our alumni go to graduate schools and move on in business and in
not-for-profits and in the arena of public health, what does it mean when we can
find so much enthusiasm for ideas and academic accomplishment? Extraordinary
talent can be found in the most unconventional places if we as educators
treat people with dignity. [Professor:] I have a question for you: how would you describe such a society? [Student:] … because it has a caste system … The importance of BPI to me is that this is a project
that actually shows how we can succeed and how we can build success out of the
policy failures of mass incarceration that have actually put us in the
position we’re in today. There’s a road out of this, but we actually have to have
the courage to take it. So while there’s lots more to be done in New York,
nationally we felt the most impactful thing we could do would be to empower
other educational communities to take this on themselves. So we’ve partnered
with Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Grinnell College in Iowa, Goucher College
in Maryland, and we want their prison projects to reflect their communities
and their values as deeply as we hope we reflect Bard’s. College education does not
get us better treatment in prison nor does it guarantee release on parole.
[Applause, laughter] The work is hard. The hours are long and there
aren’t many immediate rewards. However, I wanted to be a better person and as I
stand here before you today I believe it has made me a better person. What really
motivated me was my kids, because I started wondering, you know, what am I
gonna do for them? What kind of example am I gonna be for them? He’s been
telling me all day it’s like I’m famous, you know? And, I mean, that’s like—that’s a
feeling that nothing in the world could take away from me. It’s a feeling
I can’t even describe because it
makes me feel so good. [Leon Botstein:] The irony is that the best students we have, bar none, are undergraduates who are in prison. That the men and women who have
suffered ostracism and incarceration are the most curious, disciplined, and most
original and hardworking students. When we will look at those students and
experience them the classroom, the gift is not ours to the prisoners, it’s their
gift to us. [Gate clanking] As I understand it, our corrections
system culminates with a bus ticket. Here’s what you have when you leave the door—
here’s a bus ticket, which is frankly a bus ticket to recidivism. It’s a bus
ticket back, OK? When the system instead culminates in college, that’s gonna be
your bridge. It changes the meaning of the whole system. ♪♪♪

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