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November 21, 2019

Where Minds Run Free

A prominent producing pair explores education behind bars.

Ann Farmer
  • Bard Prison Initiative students


In New York's Eastern Correctional Facility, Rodney Spivey-Jones sits on his metal bed, just inches from his toilet.

A window in the door to his cell permits guards to peer in day and night. Unlike other inmates of this maximum-security prison, he refrains from taping up posters or photos to buffer his reality.

"This is not a place I live in," he says, buoyant dreadlocks softening his otherwise serious mien. Pressed into his bookshelves, however, are two Colson Whitehead novels, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and stacks of social-studies books, indicating that he is engaged in a vibrant intellectual pursuit.

Spivey-Jones is, in fact, enrolled in the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a rare college education program for incarcerated men and women that bestows associate and bachelor degrees. Viewers meet him in the opening episode of College Behind Bars, a PBS documentary series premiering November 25.

Produced by Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein (and directed by Novick in her solo directorial debut), the four-part series poses a crucial question: Should people who've made mistakes be able to obtain a college degree in prison to better position themselves for a successful reentry into society?

Statistics show that nearly half of the 630,000 men and women released from prison each year return within three years. But fewer than 4 percent of the BPI alumni released from prison in the past 20 years have gone back.

Novick and Botstein have collaborated for decades on documentaries with Ken Burns (who serves as executive producer on College Behind Bars), including their acclaimed PBS Vietnam War series.

"Going into Hanoi was simple by comparison," says Botstein, describing how, each time they entered the penitentiaries (a women's prison also participated), every item was scrutinized. "Every cord, every battery, every plug," she says, a security drill repeated through 42 days of shooting.

In a tiny cubicle, they sat down with BPI student Giovannie Hernandez, whose art and poetry books sit alongside his stash of canned beans.

Since Hernandez resides in an open dorm, he waits until night to open the tomes. "There are a lot of distractions, guys walking around, talking loudly," says Hernandez, whose smile reveals a cracked tooth. "So I may start my work at 11 at night and go to bed at two or three in the morning."

Yet another student is Jule Hall, who has learned German. "One of the things that really attracted me about Germany," he explains, leafing through a German publication in his cell, "was its historical mistake and then the manner in which it tried to make up for that mistake."

As the series progresses, the producers slowly release information on the participants' crimes. "It gives the audience a chance to know them as people," says Novick, who was intent on providing viewers an uncommon and revealing window into their current lives.

That includes watching BPI participants recite passages from Moby Dick in the prison yard and trying to master the tongue-twister challenges of Mandarin Chinese.

In one moving soliloquy, Sebastian Yoon describes the transformative effect that studying has on him. "The walls, they disappear," he says. "I'm reading about Kierkegaard and I'm learning about history and memory. And I become free."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2019

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