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While U.S. prisons face the terrifying and inescapable threat of COVID-19 within their walls, vital education resources for the incarcerated have been horribly impacted—a situation documentary filmmaker Lynn Novick (The Vietnam War, Prohibition, The War) and Jule Hall, a graduate of the Bard College Prison Initiative (BPI), want to highlight here.
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Novick’s PBS docuseries College Behind Bars focused on the immense importance and power of college for the incarcerated, and covered Hall’s 2015 release following a 22-year sentence. He has since created social impact campaigns for award-winning documentaries examining prisoner reentry, gun violence and racial and economic inequality in America and currently works as a program associate for the Ford Foundation in its unit for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Justice.
Hall and Novick wrote the following essay together, detailing the pandemic’s impact on a desperately needed education system.
By Jule Hall and Lynn Novick
In 2014, when we first began to collaborate on College Behind Bars, we hoped the film would provide a fresh look at what was still a highly controversial issue: college-in-prison. The response to the docuseries, and its stories of incarcerated students transformed, has been amazing and humbling for us and all of the students who participated in the project. One of them, Rodney Spivey-Jones, who is still incarcerated, recently explained in an interview what it’s been like for him:
“I started to get letters from teachers and principals and students working on their dissertations. Some were asking for copies of my senior project, others were explaining how I had inspired them to go back to college… And just to read the positive responses about me… I cried. I cried. I felt seen.”
For the past generation, we have witnessed the positive impact formerly incarcerated leaders have had on our society. People who’ve received their education in prison or upon their release are redefining what it means to be a student advocate in this country. They are people who show up for community. They are leaders. These people have reminded us with the 2018-2019 Voter Restoration Movement in Florida what it means to be a citizen. Make no mistake about it, mass incarceration is a racial evil and an economic waste in society. Investing in people closest to the problem has improved all of our lives.
The idea that college-in-prison is the most cost-effective and impactful approach to reforming our criminal legal system is now a given, and it isn’t a new idea. Scholars have discovered that Malcolm X took advantage of college courses during his incarceration from 1946 to 1952. There were indeed college programs in most American prisons from the 1970s until the 1994 Crime Bill banned Pell Grants for people in prison. When our film was released last fall, Congress was seriously considering the restoration of Pell eligibility for incarcerated students, with broad bi-partisan support. While Congress has yet to make a decision, the Department of Education has decided to extend the Second Chance Pilot program to 67 new college-in-prison programs. We praise this decision with temperance however, because no one has a clear idea of how college-in-prison will continue in the age of coronavirus.
COVID-19 presents an existential crisis to college-in-prison on all fronts. As we’ve witnessed the virus’s devastating impact on prisons and jails, where social distancing is impossible and health care is woefully inadequate, we wanted to know, what the pandemic has meant for thousands of incarcerated men and women enrolled in college programs, trying to build a better future for themselves upon release? To find out, we divided up an informal investigation. We reached out to dear friends and colleagues on the front lines. And what we discovered is grim. “We are more isolated than ever due to COVID-19,” an incarcerated student at Woodbourne Correctional Facility told us. “All programs are shut down. The yard is our only ‘escape.’ There is no progression, only regression. COVID-19 is highlighting just how meaningful and significant BPI is in our lives. Out there, people can seek to better themselves during quarantine and these difficult times by doing research on the internet, or having thoughtful dialogues with family, friends, and colleagues. We can’t see our family. We don’t even have access to the prison library… With quarantine measures in place, we are left to wait and wait and wait.”
It’s important to say that nothing we express here seeks to minimize the devastating impact the pandemic has had on us all. Our hearts go out to the thousands of people who’ve lost their lives or livelihoods, and risk themselves day-to-day to help others. Our only intent is to bring attention to a largely hidden crisis within the crisis. We learned a great deal from multiple college-in-prison programs, but chose New York and California to highlight the seriousness of the threat, and the terrible choices all programs have to make.
In New York State prisons, the pandemic has been wreaking havoc. On April 17, 2020, officials confirmed that 793 correctional staff members, 190 inmates and 28 parolees tested positive for COVID-19. They confirmed the deaths of five inmates and one staffer from the virus. As a result, professors cannot enter prisons, and have had to redesign courses so that students can complete the semester without in-person teaching. More than half a dozen programs operate in New York State prisons, and many have temporarily shifted to delivering personalized course materials to complete the spring semester. For example, the Bard Prison Initiative sent 22 boxes of personalized course materials from professors to its 300 incarcerated students, in six prisons, including assignments, course work, research materials, additional pads, pens and pencils. BPI has also started a weekly newsletter for students, with thought puzzles and updates on COVID-19 and the larger Bard College and BPI community. And it features the accomplishments of alumni who have been released. For most programs, quality education was based on face-to-face community learning, and the newsletter maintains the community at the core of BPI, but it cannot possibly substitute for the vibrant, intellectual exchange of the classroom.
In California, there are face-to-face credit earning programs in 35 prisons. But in Marin County, the Prison University Project (PUP) at San Quentin has completely shut down. This was a tough decision for Jody Lewen, director of PUP. “With neither face-to-face instruction nor remote learning possible,” Lewen says, “we cannot deliver high-quality education for our students.” The program’s 300 students will not be able to complete this semester, and no one knows when PUP will resume. For now, Lewen and her colleagues are focusing on humanitarian relief for all of the 3900 men incarcerated at San Quentin, delivering care packages of beef jerky and tuna fish, pencils and paper. “As we began to see the scope of the crisis and the threat to incarcerated people,” Lewen says, “we shifted from, ‘How can we keep our program going?’ to ‘How can we keep our students from dying?’”
Along with producer Sarah Botstein, we made College Behind Bars to show just how transformative education could be. We are all worried that a few years from now, after COVID 19 has burned its way through America and the world, when we work to rebuild and restore all that was lost, we will have also lost sight of what college in prison has been and can be.
PBS is currently rebroadcasting College Behind Bars on Thursdays at 10 PM PT, until May 28th, and the series is also available to stream on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
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