Screening and panels shine light on transformative power of prison education

An incarcerated student is filmed reading poems by Frank O’Hara for the documentary “College Behind Bars.”
An incarcerated student is filmed reading poems by Frank O’Hara for the documentary “College Behind Bars.”

Lynn Novick ’83 B.A. has big ambitions for her latest documentary “College Behind Bars.” The four-part series directed and produced by Novick, (co-produced by Sarah Botstein, and executive produced by Ken Burns), airs in November on PBS and is being shown in a special screening event at Yale on Oct. 1. “We want this film to open people’s eyes,” Novick says, “to change the narrative around criminal justice, to call into question what prison is for, and to examine who has access to education.”

Novick, an award-winning filmmaker best known for co-directing and producing landmark PBS series with Burns including “The Vietnam War,” “Prohibition,” and “Jazz,” ventured into new territory with “College Behind Bars.” She was led by a firm belief that there was a story about higher education inside America’s prisons that needed to be told.

It started when she and longtime collaborator Botstein showed their film “Prohibition” to incarcerated students at the Eastern Correctional Facility in New York State at the invitation of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a rigorous college-in-prison program founded by Max Kenner in 1999 in which incarcerated men and women enroll in Bard College classes and earn a Bard degree. Yale’s own program, the Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall, is one of 14 programs partnering with BPI through its national Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison. Novick says the incarcerated students provided “the most interesting and substantive conversations of any of the audiences we presented to. I was blown away by the level of rigor, focus, and attention.”

She soon found herself teaching a course on documentary film and history in the prison. By the time the class ended, she and Botstein had decided to make a film.

Novick directs “College Behind Bars.”
Novick directs “College Behind Bars.”

I had the privilege of a Yale education and a private school education,” Novick says. “And that allowed me to become who I am. I think we — and our elite institutions — have a responsibility to provide these opportunities to those who don’t have access.”

Panel discussions at the Yale screening on Tuesday will include Botstein, Novick, and Kenner, as well as Jule Hall, an alumnus of BPI who is now a program associate at the Ford Foundation, and Elitha Smith, the sister of a currently incarcerated BPI graduate who is prominently featured in the film. Other panelists include Emily Bazelon ’93 B.A., ’00 LAW, lecturer and senior research scholar at Yale Law School and author of “Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration”; Marc Pelka, undersecretary of criminal Justice Policy and Planning in Connecticut; Elizabeth Alexander ’84 B.A., celebrated poet and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and Zelda Roland ’08 B.A., ’16 Ph.D., founding director of the Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI).

Prison education speaks to Yale’s mission of seeking exceptionally promising students and cultivating citizens and leaders,” Roland says. “If we can begin to imagine a future beyond mass incarceration, empowering and educating the leaders of that future who have been directly impacted is a big part of the university’s role.” She notes numerous Yale alumni who have been at the forefront of prison education, including Kelsey Kauffman ’71 B.A., a member of one of the first coeducated classes at Yale College, who founded the Higher Education Program at the Indiana Women’s Prison in 2012. Journalist Sarah Stillman ’06 B.A., staff writer for the New Yorker and lecturer in English at Yale, ran a creative writing workshop for four years at the Cheshire Correctional Institute, a maximum-security men’s prison in Connecticut. Marc M. Howard ’93 B.A. is the founding director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University and an outspoken advocate for prison reform. George Chochos, who earned his B.A. while incarcerated through BPI and eventually graduated from Yale Divinity School ’16 M.Div. ’17 S.T.M., runs the Pivot Program for Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative.

There’s a long, rich history of Yale students and alumni working in prison reform, both from the legal side and in education in prison,” Roland says.

College Behind Bars provides an inside look at the transformative power of education for incarcerated men and women. “The graduates of BPI are leaders in their fields,” Novick says. She mentions the BPI debate team, featured in the film, which has defeated debate teams at West Point, Cambridge University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard. Novick says these incarcerated men and women are gifted, capable students who have just been denied opportunities. “Many incarcerated people come from communities of color where they haven’t had access to quality education,” Novick says. “This film is a rebuke to the tyranny of low expectations.”   

The College Behind Bars preview and discussion will be held Oct. 1, 4-6 p.m. at the Whitney Humanities Center. Find more details and register for the event here. View the film’s trailer below: 


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