What is prison for? Should it include a college education?
Those two questions are at the heart of “College Behind Bars,” a new documentary that airs Nov. 25 and 26 on PBS. The documentary – by Lynn Novick and produced by Sarah Botstein and Ken Burns – offers a rare, up-close look at how offering higher education in a correctional facility can change lives.
The Bard Prison Initiative, a college-in-prison program in New York state, is the focal point of the documentary.
As a political science scholar who has taught behind bars – and as one of the first student volunteers for the Bard Prison Initiative – I’ve seen firsthand the transformative power that prison education programs can have.
My first experience with the Initiative came in the early 2000s when I was an an undergraduate at Bard College. Back then, I volunteered at Eastern Correctional Facility, where I tutored a social science class; and at Beacon Correctional Facility, a women’s minimum security prison, where I helped lead a writing workshop. Both prisons are located in New York state. It was powerful to see how students acquired new skills for analysis and self-expression – and how it allowed them to engage differently with their worlds.
In 2017, after becoming a political science professor at Emerson College, I used my experience and the Bard Prison Initiative as a model to launch the Emerson Prison Initiative. The idea behind the Initiative is to expand access to higher education to incarcerated people in Massachusetts.
Dollars and sense
Even if you don’t view education for the incarcerated as a worthy social justice issue, it is – at a minimum – a matter of saving taxpayer money.