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A Liberatory Liberal Arts Education for Those in Prison


Source: The New American Baccalaureate Project

A few years ago, one of us rode handcuffed in the back of a cop car from Bond County Jail to Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill., which would become a near-living hell of a home for two months (prior to a transfer to Decatur Correctional Center). Before getting to Logan, you have to change from the standard orange jumpsuit to a less-than-chic yellow onesie that does not button up all the way – at least, the onesie one of your co-authors received lacked full button capacity. At Logan, after waiting for a while in a small room with a group of 10 other girls, an officer ordered one of us to strip naked. Being strip searched there means having a correctional officer check every crevasse, nook and cranny of your body. If you’re a first timer and a sensitive soul, you might start crying when that happens. You might also start to realize what prison is all about.

Director Lynn Novick and executive producer Ken Burns raise the issue of prison’s raison d’être from the start of College Behind Bars, their new four-part PBS documentary series.

“I’ve been incarcerated for 13 years, and from my experience I can tell you, prison is here to punish us,” says Rodney Spivey-Jones, one of the prisoners interviewed in the film, less than 90 seconds into the first part of the series. “It’s here to warehouse us. But it’s not about rehabilitating. It’s not about creating productive beings. It just isn’t.”

The series takes viewers inside the Bard Prison Initiative, a program associated with Bard College that offers higher education to incarcerated persons across six prisons in New York. By amplifying the voices of students involved in the BPI, Novick and Burns – who previously collaborated on films like the 18-hour series The Vietnam War, and the nine-episode series, The Civil War – do more than represent the transformative power of education. They also educate. The narrative they construct is not antithetical, and is surprisingly almost amenable, to the praxis of prison abolition.

By abolition, we refer here to the theory and action geared toward getting rid of the institution of incarceration. It tends to entail working toward eliminating the “prison-industrial complex,” which comprises police, jails, prisons, e-carceration and other repressive and coercive apparatuses. Abolitionists are often interested in transcending the paradigm of punishment and the prevailing criminal punishment system that equates justice with vengeance, harm and routine dehumanization. Abolitionists work to oppose construction of new jails, facilitate workshops focused on teaching attendees how to avoid relying on cops, and emphasize restorative as well as transformative justice practices for repairing harm that do not require kidnapping people from communities or putting them in cages. For many, abolition also involves promoting “abolition democracy,” a term used by W.E.B. Du Bois in “Black Reconstruction in America” and later popularized by Angela Davis. It refers to the positive efforts to create counter-institutions to offer oft-neglected critical services and ensure collective access to the means of subsistence necessary for productive and creative life, and it encompasses the forms of organization that enable people greater say over the decisions affecting their lives. The constructive aspect of abolition also implies people coming together to learn from each other and to create opportunities to participate in shaping the common good.

Following Spivey-Jones’s critical commentary on prison, the College Behind Bars documentary series opens with some telling stats. Early on we learn that of the 51,000 men and 2,400 women incarcerated in the state of New York, only 950 have access to college classes.

In her book, “Are Prisons Obsolete?” Angela Davis references the 1994 crime bill that eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners and thereby defunded college education behind bars. She references another documentary, The Last Graduation, about the final graduation at the Marist College program in Greenhaven Prison in 1995. As Davis notes, one prisoner who worked as a clerk for the school commented that with the books getting taken away there was little left to do on the inside, except maybe weight lifting – yet, he wondered, “what’s the use of building your body if you can’t build your mind?” In a bitterly ironic development, as Davis documents, “not long after educational programs were disestablished, weights and bodybuilding equipment were also removed from most U.S. prisons.”

Max Kenner, the founder and executive director of the BPI, explains a little more than 35 minutes into the first part of the series that during the mid-1990s college for prisoners became a political “lightning rod,” despite a surfeit of evidence indicating higher education for incarcerated persons was one of the least expensive and most effective ways to reduce recidivism.

But the times, as Dylan famously put it, well, they are a-changing, if at a glacial pace, especially for those on the inside.

Around 40 minutes into the third part of the series, Kenner acknowledges the number of people who still view the BPI and related programs as morally wrong, but then he alludes to a seismic shift in the political climate when it comes to imprisonment as the film displays headline-style news highlighting the number of states that have passed criminal justice reform measures.

Soon after, the filmmakers show footage of Obama, while he was president, suggesting that with the amount of money it costs to incarcerate everyone for one year in the US the nation-state could provide free tuition at all public colleges and universities.

Soon after that, viewers learn the BPI received a small federal grant and that those involved launched a pilot program to fund 12,000 incarcerated students across the country.

The change in the political climate is exciting. It is also long overdue. Back in October, a congressional representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, even tweeted that “we need to have a real conversation about decarceration & prison abolition in this country.” And lots of folks – from Mark Zuckerberg, to Rand Paul, to Joe Biden (architect of that infamous Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994), to (of all people) Charles G. Koch, to Kim Kardashian, to Jay-Z – have jumped on the prison reform bandwagon.

Reform, however necessary, can also undermine the overarching aims of abolition if embraced uncritically. In “Are Prisons Obsolete?” Davis argued that when it comes to rhetoric and proposals regarding reform, “the emphasis is almost inevitably on generating the changes that will produce a better prison system,” and claimed “frameworks that rely exclusively on reforms help to produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond the prison.” She is equally critical of reformist reforms in the 2011 documentary, Visions of Abolition, noting that historically reforms have too often helped reproduce and expand systems of incarceration, punishment and control.

Of course, reforms can also take on a more abolitionist character. Leading up to the 2018 prisoner strike across multiple states, the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak collective spelled out 10 specific demands they were striking for, some of which related to “reforms” in a technical sense. In addition to calling for immediate improvements in conditions on the inside, among other provisos, the collective demanded that nobody “be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender,” that funding be provided “to offer more rehabilitation services” in state prisons, and that Pell grants get reinstated.

Dylan Rodriguez, a founding member of Critical Resistance, argued in a 2003 essay that “political struggles by imprisoned activists over seemingly mundane issues (for example, access to health care or legal materials) are in fact ‘radical,’ if by this term we mean actions addressing the fundamental structuring or ‘roots’ of social (or in this case carceral) formation.” Similar struggles on the outside “would likely be considered to be progressive or liberal reformist campaigns premised on the actor’s articulation of ‘reasonable and just’ demands on the state,” wrote Rodriguez, now a professor in the Media and Cultural Studies Department at UC Riverside, wherein one of us also teaches. Yet, he intimates, the State’s penchant for disregarding, penalizing and suppressing demands for basic provisions on the inside – indeed, prison’s propensity to vitiate civic, political and social being – make collective action by the imprisoned aimed at challenging the State and realizing shared goals for reform more than merely reformist.

Similarly, we might entertain the idea that efforts championing quality college curriculum in prison, including, say, a documentary film project focused on students positively impacted by the BPI, amount to a kind of “critical public pedagogy,” an informal education imbued with potential not limited to the impossible task of turning prison into a truly humane place.

Likewise, by documenting the challenges and successes associated with the program, College Behind Bars shows how the higher-level learning and new knowledge production the BPI students engage in reflects an authentically transformative process.

In the third part of the documentary, viewers see Bard students enrolled in a communication studies course lose a hotly contested debate against a West Point team. Redemption comes in the first half of the final episode of the series. With tenacity on par with the Wiley College debate team immortalized in that 2007 film featuring Forest Whitaker and Denzel Washington, the Bard team pulls off a Cinderella-style upset, defeating the celebrated Harvard team by brilliantly reframing a debate about undocumented immigration into one concerning inequities in public education.

Another moment that conveys the BPI’s liberatory quality of education comes in the third series installment when students declare a major – what they call “moderating into” a discipline – and discuss their senior projects.

“This is the next stage of my Bard career,” the aforementioned Spivey-Jones told the camera. “I’m now someone who is doing research. I’m a scholar. That’s a big deal.”

He titled his project, “The Dream: Discourse, Subjectivity and Perception,” and, he explains, his work examines the Civil Rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement and how their related rhetoric has evolved.

Another BA student interviewed in the film, Sebastian Yoon, tells viewers he chose to focus on Japanese Imperialism vis-à-vis Korea and how present-day Japanese and Korean persons look back on the period, “how it shapes national identities,” and how resistance influences conceptions of imperialism.

Elias Beltran informs us that his project examines the Hispanic voice in hip-hop culture. Tomas Coban mentions his research into the social and economic aspects of immigration reform.

In that episode, the filmmakers go from a medium close-up shot of another aspiring scholar, Giovannie Hernandez, talking about his work exploring the relationship between poetry and painting, to a quick shot of him reading in his cell, as audio from another interview clip starts to play. Then they cut to a shot of Hernandez facing a stack of books piled high as he tells us the hardest book he is reading is “The Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry,” by Charles Altieri. In the fourth and final installment of the series, we learn the working title for his project – “Why He is Not a Painter: The Influence of Frank O’Hara’s Poetics on His Curatorship at MOMA” – and we hear from his professor, Christina Mengert, who says Hernandez is reading books that she didn’t tackle until graduate school.

“I’ve always been that kid that can sit in front of a painting and just admire it because there’s something beautiful about it even if I didn’t really know or couldn’t articulate what it was,” Hernandez says before sharing his interest in Jackson Pollock’s work. He likes Pollock’s art, he says, because of the logic and intention that resides within the chaos. As he speaks, the footage cuts to a page from a book with a photo of Pollock, and the camera appears to tilt upward revealing one of the artist’s paintings that exemplifies the contradiction Hernandez highlights. At the end of the series, the filmmakers add a sense of “psychological unity” – to use a term favored by public speaking instructor Stephen E. Lucas – when the documentary treats us to shots of Hernandez gazing into that Pollock painting, outside of prison and ostensibly in a museum. We learn via the text on screen that he is living in the Bronx and advocating for bail reform with a non-profit.

Hernandez, however, suffered major setbacks prior to his release – hurdles that underscore the commonplace and arbitrary hardships endured by all those who do time. As Hernandez explains about midway through the final installment of the series, he ended up getting hit from behind and then fighting back in self-defense when he had just 101 days left on his sentence. Officials put him in the prison’s Security Housing Unit, a kind of solitary confinement – and, we argue, a form of torture – known as the SHU, for 35 days. Hernandez was in the middle of writing his senior project when this happened. Officers confiscated all of his books and all of his schoolwork – some six years of writing and months of notes for his project, he laments on camera. They never returned that scholastic work to him. As we learn via text on the screen at the end of the series when we see the medium close-up profile shot of Hernandez a few feet away from that Pollock painting, he still hopes to complete his BA.

By telling the stories of these students pursuing their own research interests, Novick shows just how significant the Bard instruction is at the individual level. She represents the interplay between individuals and the institution by recording the raw emotions on display when student-interviewees divulge veritable horror stories related to both their lives prior to prison, in some cases, and germane to the hellish existence on the inside in every instance.

In the second part of the series, Kenner, the BPI director, dispels the myth that Bard students behind bars achieve incredible academic success because, in the main, they face so few distractions; “that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he notes. Soon after, we hear from Spivey-Jones, who talks about how involvement in the BPI means “balancing two identities”; enrolled in the BPI, you assume the role of student, but you also remain a prisoner – and, he adds, most guards do not recognize the former identity (ever).

Tellingly, the documentary does not include testimony from correctional officers because, as we learn toward the end of part one, the officer’s union did not respond to requests for comment or interviews.

Fast forward about 10 minutes from the moment Spivey-Jones alludes to the two-identities balancing act and we hear Yoon, one of the aforementioned students, explain to his classmates the problem of trying “to juggle these two realities, one of which is so beautiful, and one of which is so dark and disgusting, where you have to reveal your body and your orifices.” Yoon was contrasting the joyous experience of the college graduation ceremony he participated in with the unending nightmare of incarceration. He and all the other students featured in the documentary had to return to and continually wrestle with that nightmarish reality while pursuing their degrees. The documentary depicts people striving to retain or reclaim pieces of their humanity otherwise systematically negated by the institution.

At about 23:30 into the final chapter of the series, Yoon recounts the time when he tried to commit suicide after getting locked up. Just a kid – 16 years old, he says – he waited for officers to do their midnight walk.

“I took my bed sheets, I wrapped it around the ceiling light,” he details, in obvious anguish, pausing to maintain composure so as not to breakdown, as a fellow classmate puts a reassuring hand on his shoulder, “and I remember standing there trembling.”

He could not go through with it, he says, because killing himself would kill his father too.

Although they might not approach the heaviness of that anecdote, Novick captures on camera a slew of other frustrations the BPI students experience and express throughout their involvement in the program.

Toward the end of the second episode, Spivey-Jones explains how he was charged with “harassment” for using explicit language in a piece he was writing for LIT 201: The Art of the Short Story. Echoing the punitive approach that landed many in prison in the first place, officers threw Spivey-Jones in the SHU for seven days.

“It’s sad because, in the end, you went to the box for doing your homework,” a fellow student concludes.

In the third installment, as war footage rolls, Spivey-Jones describes how he worries from inside the prison about his sister, a member of the armed forces, when she is deployed in Afghanistan. With a cut back to the prison walls, we learn that his sister also worries about him.

“He’s, like, trying to learn and keep his head on in a war zone,” his sister, the service member who has seen combat firsthand, affirms, “because he has to watch everything he’s doing. He’s under constant stress, [under] a constant watchful eye on high alert all the time because you never know. I mean, there’s things that go on in there that we don’t know about, that he doesn’t talk about because he doesn’t want us to, just, be afraid.”

Foregrounding that not-entirely-implicit analogy – the parallel drawn between the disturbingly quotidian stresses, pressures and high-stakes risks prisoners face and the perils faced by soldiers at war – is just one way those impacted by the BPI and the filmmakers compel us to consider the human beings otherwise rendered invisible, locked up out of sight and out of mind.

As Spivey-Jones’s sister describes how close the two siblings were growing up, the film cuts from shots of her speaking directly to the camera to shots of her visiting her brother in prison and them seated at a table playing Scrabble, to still photographs of the two when they were kids. Accompanying a subsequent longer shot of the visiting room with the two seated at the table on the right, Spivey-Jones emphasizes that “every single word matters” during those short visits. Those four words became the title for that episode – for good reason.

One of your authors visited his co-author when she was locked up in Decatur in the spring of 2016. After flying from the West Coast back to the Midwest to participate in a long-overdue PhD dissertation defense and then staying at our mother’s house two hours away, one of us drove, with said mother in tow, the hour and a half up to central Illinois on three and a half hours of sleep. Rushing, to be able to make it back down to St. Louis to catch an early afternoon flight, the hour plus ordeal of checking in and getting through security before even being able to meet with one’s sibling added stress to an already stressful situation. Evidently, as one of us waiting on the inside recalls, the visiting co-author commented at the table during the visit that another person waiting to get in to see family looked at him like he knew nothing about anything because he did not realize shoes had to come off prior to check-in or something.

Now, your co-authors wrote letters back and forth often enough while the State held one captive, but given our respective locations, some 2,000 miles apart, that visit was the only time we were able to see each other while the one of us remained incarcerated. Every single word did seem to matter. (Notably, during the period in which one of your co-authors did time, the Decatur Correctional Center did not offer any college level classes. There were some classes taught by other inmates, like one on overeating and one focused on crafts. A woman who worked in the front office in a secretarial position taught a parenting course, and a CO taught a life course. But higher education was not part of the corrections scheme there.)

Not all visits and family relations with those on the inside are as valued. While one of the mothers of an imprisoned woman featured in the series – another BPI student – spoke to how “excellent” the program had been for her daughter, another mother of an incarcerated daughter reacted to her child’s imprisonment and education in a markedly different manner.

Tamika Graham, a student working on her associate’s degree through the BPI, tells the camera about the strained relationship she has with her mother, Sonya Graham, in the third series installment. As the elder Graham explains on camera, Tamika’s sister, who works as a correctional officer, convinced Sonya she needed to go see her daughter because it would make it easier for her to do the time.

“But if you wanted to spend better time,” she says in an on-camera interview, “then you wouldn’t have went to jail.”

As the documentary cuts back and forth between the interview clip and shots of the mother and daughter – together with Tamika’s own daughter, who looks to be a teenager – seated at a table during visiting hours, the elder Graham tells us that her daughter had a good childhood.

“And then you go and you commit a crime, and now you want the family to come together and be in your corner,” she says. She goes on to say she does not want to drive to the prison on a weekday for her daughter’s graduation only to have to drive to the facility again to pick her up upon release within a two week span. Tamika tells her mother she is not worried about her picking her up; yet, she pleads, “you have to be at my graduation.” Her mother responds by saying she is getting ready to “walk away in about two seconds.” She goes on to utter a few expletives and expresses frustration with the fact her tax dollars are being spent to incarcerate – and – she seems to insinuate – to educate someone who committed a crime.

The scene illustrates the ongoing ideological opposition to college programs for those behind bars and the ongoing opposition to meaningful reforms, let alone anything approaching abolitionist politics.

To be clear, Novick never broaches the subject of abolition at any point in the three hours, 49 minutes and 47 seconds of the College Behind Bars documentary series. The series director included no clear-cut condemnation of prison as such. Nor did she incorporate any social movement pedagogy into the film that could teach viewers about organizing against and beyond institutions of incarceration and the criminal punishment system.

Importantly, Novick and Burns also did not present higher education as an easy answer to everything. They go to great lengths to stress the difficulty of the BPI program for students and, to a lesser extent, their college instructors.

One of your co-authors taught at the California Rehabilitation Center during the fall 2019 semester as part of the Norco College prison education program. While he would in no way put his pedagogy on par – or even in the same league – with the Bard professors featured in College Behind Bars, he can attest to the extra work that goes into preparing and teaching a college level class inside a prison.

As indicated in the film, the conditions leave educators little choice but to go back to the basics. Internet is non-existent in those classrooms. Computers are a luxury that can, if one is lucky, come in limited form – like without a monitor and with a less-than-stellar projector and unreliable speakers. Computer files – pdf and Word documents, PowerPoint slides and all the rest – may or may not get saved to the hard drive before a class as you requested. Along with all other course materials, those files also might not even get approved; academic freedom cannot fully bypass the prison walls, and what you teach is to some extent at the discretion of prison officials. And disruptions occur often during class. Guards may or may not ensure students gain access to the classroom on time. Of course, there is also the ever-present conflict between correctional officers and prisoners, always simmering just below the surface. It seems to emerge whenever control, subordination and abjection are questioned – even though outside of their roles in relation to the men incarcerated, guards can be friendly and helpful.

As for the students, their attitudes concerning college classes circumscribed by the carceral system are incisive and nuanced, as evidenced by one instructive scene in the series wherein several of the BPI students sit around a table, talking while surrounded by books.

Elias Beltran, one of the students on the Bard debate team when it defeated Harvard, points out that those involved in the Bard program are only 10 percent of the incarcerated population there and raises the issue of all the other prisons across the country bereft of any meaningful programs like the one with Bard.

“When we talk about reform, on the ground, in here, right, with the guys that we lock around,” he asks, “what does reform look like? What does it even mean to them?”

A pointed question.

As a follow-up comment, Dyjuan Tatro, one of the students who also dominated in the debate against Harvard, notes that while he has been lucky to have the higher education experience, prison is not the ideal setting for emancipatory learning to occur. If he had the choice of where to go to college, he notes, he would not do it there.

“It’s a very stressful and kind of disgusting place,” he says. “You know, it’s a bad place.”

Hernandez, seated across the table, provides a rejoinder that captures the essence of college behind bars – both the educational initiative and the pedagogical documentary about it.

“It’s not what prison is doing for you,” he says. “It’s what education is doing for you.”

While we hope that more documentaries are made about the praxis of abolition – perhaps Novick and Burns could even collaborate on such a future project – and while he hope more organizers and movements link up to engage in abolitionist public pedagogy, we also entertain the possibility that programs like the Bard Prison Initiative and documentaries like College Behind Bars could prefigure that.

In the final installment of this series, we get a glimpse as to why that might be the case.

A little more than a minute into the last episode, the filmmakers complement a shot of a long hallway full of cells on the right with interview audio from Yoon, one of the BPI students discussed above. Then the film cuts, right as he pauses, to a shot of him in his cell reading and writing with a barred window in the foreground.

“For prisoners, freedom exists in fragments,” he says, “because when I’m writing essays or when I’m reading books, I go through this kind of tunnel visual thing, right? The walls, they disappear. They dissipate.” As he says that last word (“dissipate”), the filmmakers cut to a medium close-up shot of Yoon pushing his hands out to the side and closing his eyes.

“And I’m in my zone, and I’m reading about Kierkegaard. I’m learning about history, memory.”

Cut to another shot layers of cell doors and walls from the foreground to the background.

“And I become free,” he says.

 

James Anderson is an adjunct professor working in Southern California. He is from Illinois but now tries each semester to cobble together classes to teach at various SoCal colleges and universities. He has recently taught classes in the Communication Studies Department at Riverside City College and in the Media and Cultural Studies Department at the University of California, Riverside. He also taught a class at the California Rehabilitation Center during the fall 2019 semester as part of the Norco College prison education program. He has worked as a freelance writer for several outlets. 

Katy Anderson is a formerly incarcerated recovering addict. She is also the mother of two boys. Katy lives in Southern Illinois. She is currently focused on continuing recovery and on raising her children. She enjoys learning and listening to music in her spare time. 

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