In the U.S., the nation with the largest prison population proportional to population in the world, the idea of rehabilitation long ago went from being a stated goal to a completely ignored concept. A study focusing on people released from prisons in 2005 reveals that they were arrested again in the following nine years at an astounding rate of 83%. But rather than give up on the 2.3 million primarily black and brown Americans who are incarcerated, the Bard Prison Initiative, founded in 2001, has taken a different approach.
The inspiring program, which provides people incarcerated in New York with the opportunity to take college-level classes and obtain degrees from Bard College, is the subject of a PBS documentary titled, “College Behind Bars.” Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer caught up with the film’s director, Lynn Novick, and Jule Hall, a graduate of the Bard Prison Initiative, in the latest episode of “Scheer Intelligence.”
“In this film, [we see Jule Hall] taking German classes, and there are people taking Mandarin Chinese classes, and there are people studying mathematics,” Scheer says in his introduction. “To my mind, the redemptive quality of education is really on display in this film, among other things, including that we can think of other human beings as throwaway people.”
Hall, who received a degree from the program and now works as a program associate at the Ford Foundation, tells Scheer how the program affected him and his classmates.
“One of the reasons why I joined the program is because I saw that there weren’t many constructive avenues for people to engage themselves on the inside,” Hall explains. “And my desire was to engage myself, and the Bard Prison Initiative gave me the means to do so, by sitting me in a classroom, helping me to see myself as a student, and allowing me to take a more active role in my own self-development.”
Hall discusses his project, which examines how “West Germany in 1954 worked to create a multicultural society by using migrant workers called gastarbeiter,” and how he even learned German during the program. He describes powerful class discussions that the program made possible, and how he and his classmates were able to grow, despite the dire conditions they faced in prison.
One of the most incredible facts about the Bard Prison Initiative is how it has reduced recidivism. Graduates have a 4% recidivism rate, as opposed to much higher rates reported across the country. But one of the obstacles to programs such as these are financial, especially in that lower rates of recidivism eat into the prison-industrial complex’s bottom lines. Scheer points out why this decline should be desirable to American society as a whole.
“We know that people returning to jail—that’s an expense; this is not a way of saving money,” he says. “And so you actually have here a stunning example of something that works. And there are increasing numbers of conservatives, as well as liberals, who know that rehabilitation—that, you know, considering people as full human beings with full potential, no matter what happened to them when they were 17 or 27 or 37 … that there’s something there in each person.”
Near the end of the interview, Scheer asks Novick what inspired her to work on the documentary series, noting how often such projects are overlooked in our capitalist society in favor of films that can perhaps garner more prestige or financial reward.
“You are someone who is very successful, and you work with Ken Burns on these different projects, and [are] probably recognized as [one of] the best documentary filmmakers alive,” Scheer says. “And you got into this really tough issue, and you put a lot of time into it. [What] got you into this project and what have you learned from it?”
“[The producer, Sarah Botstein, and I] got the chance to just teach a class in the program and were so inspired by the students, and really exhilarated and also devastated to think about this incredible talent and capacity and intellectual sort of fervor, and then think about where it’s happening and the juxtaposition of those two things,” Novick says. “[Our] first reaction was this would be an amazing film. And our second thought was, we don’t have time, we’re busy working on our Vietnam series … but it really stayed with us. [Making the film has] been an incredible privilege, and I will never think about education, incarceration, filmmaking, politics, human beings, the human condition, the same way again.”
In the media player above, listen to the inspiring discussion between Novick, Hall and Scheer, which touches on the larger issues surrounding incarceration in the U.S. and its connection to slavery and inequality. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the credits.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: This is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. And one reason I like doing these things is that I read books that I might not have read thoroughly, I watch documentaries that I might have missed. And I must say, this is one of my most thrilling educational moments. I’m doing this from the University of Southern California, where I am a professor; I just graded final exams. And I got to see a movie–there are a lot of themes to explore here, but really at the core of it is the importance of ideas and education, and going back to a controversy, really, about what do we do when people have done things that are wrong, committed crimes or what have you? Do they get written off as throwaway people? Do we just lock ’em up, get them out of sight, out of mind? And we’ve done that now to over 2 million people, are now in, you know, per capita the largest prison system in the world. Or do we have any notion of redemption, of rehabilitation, of learning?
And there’s something called the Bard–Bard College, it’s a small liberal arts college–the Bard Prison [Initiative]. And they’ve really taken the whole idea of rehabilitation to really a fine point. And saying, you know, college education–college education is redeeming. And they’re dealing with the question of the recidivism of people who are warehoused, or are just treated in subhuman ways in our prison system–they go out, and then they go back in.
And let me just begin with that, you know. I’m talking to Lynn Novick, a well-known documentary filmmaker, and I’ll let her talk about her own work. And she has brought with her Jule Hall, who is one of the graduates of this program, the Bard Prison Initiative. And among other things in this film, he’s taking German classes, and there are people taking Mandarin Chinese classes, and there are people studying mathematics. And to my mind, the redemptive quality of education is really on display in this film, among other things, including that we can think of other human beings as throwaway people.
Lynn Novick: Thank you so much for having us. Yeah, with the producer Sarah Botstein, I worked on this film, we worked on this film for six, seven years, and over many years filming in maximum security prisons, incarcerated men and women in the program, BPI, as you said. We came up with this four-part series, College Behind Bars, to really show the transformative power of education and to help our country rethink what prison is for, and who has access to education in our society. Because one of the many things we learned making the film was there’s such an enormous pool of talent that has tragically been essentially wasted behind prison walls.
Jule Hall: And yes, my name is Jule. I was in the program from maybe 2005 to maybe 2014. Please excuse me, you know, dates fold into each other for me at times. And one of the reasons why I joined the program is because I saw that there weren’t many constructive avenues for people to engage themselves on the inside. And my desire was to engage myself, and the Bard Prison Initiative gave me the means to do so by sitting me in a classroom, helping me to see myself as a student, and allowing me to, you know, take a more active role in my own self-development.
RS: Jule, can you tell us a little bit about your own background, and your age when you were arrested, and what were the alternatives to you? How did you regard education before you ever got involved, you know, and into prison?
JH: Yes, so I grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in New York. It was rated one of the most violent areas in New York City just in, I believe, 2015 to 2016, recently. And it was like that when I grew up there. I always loved–
RS: Is that where Tilden High School is?
JH: Ah, no, Tilden High School is near there. Tilden is in Flatbush, but it’s near there, it’s definitely about two communities over. But–
RS: I remember that neighborhood, and just as a little footnote, I once went in there when Bobby Kennedy was a senator in New York, and he had a Bedford–Stuyvesant project; they were going to, you know, make Bedford–Stuyvesant whole again, and it didn’t quite work out.
JH: Mm. So, yeah, those areas all–you know, particularly in the early eighties and late nineties, when I grew up–Brownsville, Bed–Stuy, Flatbush, they all were, you know, pretty intense areas to grow up in. But I always had an affinity towards education. I wanted to come home and do my homework, but I lived in a community where people were picked on if they were shown to be smart. That’s not an excuse; I’m just explaining the way in which, you know, I had from my peer environment the impression that school wasn’t cool.
So I was incarcerated at the age of 17 as an accomplice to a homicide. And once I entered prison I, you know, went through that process of really questioning myself. Like, why am I here? How did I allow this to happen? What is going on? And you know, from there, there weren’t many opportunities for me to go to school or do anything constructive with myself, because that was like 1994, when college in prison was removed from New York state prisons. So I saw a void left from where the colleges left then. You know, it was pretty grim, it was pretty depressing. And eventually Bard started its program with individual donors. And you know, it’s a very competitive process; you have to really prepare yourself with writing and grammar and structure to get in. And once I got in, I just really took to the work. And the people–because there’s one aspect that I think is very important to emphasize, is that the prisoners were given a degree of autonomy to, you know, be responsible for their work. The work wasn’t easy. They made sure–that is, the professors–they gave us some really challenging texts, and they pushed us to really come with our own views to the text. So you know, I appreciated that, because it allowed me to reenter and get back into society and do some of the same things.
LN: One of the things that really struck us about the program–and Sarah and I discovered it when we were asked to give a guest lecture back in 2012, to show some scenes from the film that we made with Ken Burns about prohibition. And Sarah and I have been working with Ken Burns for–I for 30 years, her for 20 years, on many historical documentaries, including Vietnam War and Baseball, Jazz, etc. So we were used to giving screenings and showing our clips from our films, and having conversations with different kinds of people, including college students. And we went into a maximum security prison to share Prohibition with a group of students in this program, and we had the most interesting and sort of sophisticated, intellectually rigorous and challenging conversation about that film that we had, really, anywhere for any film. And that just showed us, like, what Jule is saying–the rigor of the program and the very, very high standards. The students in the program, you know, have to do the same work that they do on the Bard main campus. And my children were in college at the same time, and you know, I saw that the kind of academic assignments and engagement that the Bard students had inside prison were the same as my children were having at Bowden and Hamilton, two very elite liberal arts colleges in the East.
RS: You know, I just want to get to–I don’t know, this movie impacted me in a way I didn’t expect. I think it’s really one of the great, great documentaries. And it cuts through a cynicism that hangs on us and destroys us. The idea of being able to reject people–now, you, Jule, you were 17.
RS: Seventeen, in a very rough community. And as described in the movie, I think, if I got the right incident, you were dragged into a shootout in which someone you even, I think, respected, if I got the right incident, died.
JH: Yes. Someone who I grew up with. Yes, and I was–I walked into it, to a degree. I don’t–you know, one of the things about, you know, my engagement with myself, I take responsibility for my actions and know that what I did was wrong. But yes, I participated in a shootout in which one of my friends were killed and injured.
RS: Yeah, and you were not accused of being the shooter, but you were an accessory. And you know, I just want people to think about this. If it was your 17-year-old son, and he’s in a neighborhood where–and you should describe the neighborhood at that time–where there were very few alternatives, and you were either with the gang or you went along. And as you said, if you tried being a serious student, you were ridiculed or harassed and so forth. So, and you were caught up in this incident, and then you were held accountable in a way no one else is–no one’s held accountable for the neighborhood being that way, you know, or for the schools being what they were, or what have you. And yet you prove later on, just by the accident of this program, that you’re capable of having gone another way from the very beginning.
RS: Isn’t that what the real meaning of this is, under the terrible–and we should–the movie is so clear about how suffocating prison life is. You have somebody saying, don’t talk–you can’t talk about rehabilitation, you can’t talk–well, you know, people are being caged. They’re being caged, and somebody in the movie says it’s like living in–going to your bathroom and assume that’s your cell for the rest of your life, a small bathroom. And–I think one of the relatives of one of the people inside.
And, you know, so what really happens is we write off people like Jule, who you’re listening to right now. And you know from what he’s saying that he’s your intellectual equal. He’s there. And yet you didn’t think about him while he was in jail. Isn’t that really sort of the bottom line? That we are, in this movie, introduced to people–I can say it, having watched this movie–they are as smart or smarter, and more attentive, than my students at a fairly privileged college.
JH: Thank you.
LN: Yeah, and we should just point out as a, you know, in passing, but when Sarah and I started working on this film, which was in 2014–or we started filming in 2014–we found out that the Bard Prison Initiative has a debate team. And they were coming up against other colleges that would come into the prison to go against them, and over the course of our filming they beat Harvard. Which was, you know, exactly to your point. So the sort of bigotry of low expectations for people who are incarcerated, for people of color, for people who are poor, people who have been marginalized, is absolutely what Bard Prison Initiative–philosophically, that’s their whole point. Max Kenner, who founded the program, says in the film: BPI is actually a very simple experiment, which is what happens when we provide–meaning BPI–the kind of education that’s usually reserved for the children of the privileged and the lucky and the few to other people. And you’re right–I mean, thank you for pointing out that that is underlying the film. Just, you know, what would happen in our society, the thought experiment, if this kind of academic opportunity and high standards were made available to everyone.
JH: And you also speak to some of the more structural issues. You know, Bob, I want to say that I try to find ways to build bridges and to, you know, bring people to see things from our perspective. So I don’t want to blame or point people out about it. But we are dealing with some structural issues in our society that need to be addressed. And one of them, as you rightly point out, is the way in which the community in which I lived was violent. I remember being a 17-year-old wondering, where are all these guns coming from? You know, and from my young mind, I was like, oh my god, what is going on here? I knew it was something that was extreme and rare, but nonetheless, you know, it was a reality for where we lived. And what exactly happened, it wasn’t a gang situation, but what happened was people from one area would have problems with people from another area. And how it was dealt with was people would come to the area in which we lived and shoot. Just shoot to intimidate and terrorize. And I had the mistaken 17-year-old belief that the only way it would stop is if somebody would fire back.
So, you know, I regret that. But nonetheless, I think there’s another issue about people in prison and their propensity to change, their desire to change. There’s many people who I spent time with on the inside who were looking for things to do with their time. Like you said, it could be monotonous, it could be dangerous, filthy, you know. And people want to keep their humanity intact. And a liberal arts education was one of the ways in which I and a few of my colleagues were able to do so.
RS: You know, when you look at this movie, though, if you take it seriously–and people really have to. And by the way, it has an optimistic ending, just so people shouldn’t think this is more just bad news. Because the recidivism rate is low of people who’ve gone through this program. You can give me the statistics, I don’t have–
LN: It’s 4%, as opposed to 50%.
JH: Yeah, nationwide 50, and for the Bard program it’s 4% if not lower.
RS: OK. And we also know that people returning to jail, that’s an expense; this is not a way of saving money. And so you actually have here a stunning example of something that works. And there are increasing numbers of conservatives, as well as liberals and so forth, who know that rehabilitation–that, you know, considering people as full human beings with full potential, no matter what happened to them when they were 17 or 27 or 37. They still have–and by the way, our major religions–we talk about, you know, one nation under God–all start out recognizing at least that there’s a soul. That there’s something there in each person. And that’s why the Pope, you know, goes in and even washes the feet of prisoners and so forth. There’s a recognition that you have no right to talk about throwaway people. And yet we have a prison program that is based on just warehousing. And you have a number of people in this film saying it. And even though warehousing is far more expressive and destructive than doing education, teaching, going to school.
LN: Exactly. There’s such tremendous hypocrisy and sort of fear-mongering that has gone on around incarceration and criminal justice, and the injustice of our system is exactly what you said. So taxpayers have been told, you know, we don’t want to spend our tax dollars to provide people who are incarcerated with anything beyond food, and you know, a roof over their head. But in fact any money that is spent on education saves enormous amounts of money.
JH: Yeah, it’s a one to five dollar–every dollar put into a prison education program has a $5 return in society.
LN: So, but as you said, there’s also the deeper point of just, what is our common humanity. And, you know, what does it say about us as a society, that this is how we treat people–not to mention the huge numbers of people that we incarcerate above and beyond any other country in the world. So you’re right, this is–you know, this program does show what’s possible and what works. And it’s not expensive; is actually saves money, and it restores–you know, one of the students, Rodney, says in the film that college helps people who are incarcerated become civic beings. And I think that’s so beautifully said; it really speaks to the kind of restoration of humanity that had been–that the system is designed to try to degrade.
JH: And we’re seeing that now in New York. You know, the people who are released, who have taken the program, are coming home, taking on prominent roles in not-for-profit organizations, private organizations. They’re community organizers, they’re advocates for education, for women. We are home now with a consciousness of the system and how it operates, and want to work with that system to bring about change. So our impacted experience, from being incarcerated and going through what we went through in our younger lives, is a base or a springboard from which we draw from education to also bring about solutions to the problems that we see in society. And it’s not just New York. You know, Bard has a consortium in which it advises other states like Notre Dame, and other universities on how they could implement college programs for prisoners in their state. And we’re even seeing people in those states leaving prison, returning and becoming community members and giving back to the community.
LN: And we alluded earlier to the politics–you know, as Jule was saying, in 1994 college programs were taken away because Congress voted as part of the Clinton crime bill to remove Pell authorization. So anyone–before that, if you had a certain income threshold, you’re below it, you would get–you could get a Pell Grant that could help pay for college. And many people who were incarcerated took advantage of that program, because they were below that level. And Congress decided that from now on, there will not be Pell Grants for anybody in prison. And that basically meant that all their college programs went away. And privately funded programs like Bard have come back, but there is legislation right now being considered in Congress as part of something called the REAL Act, which is for higher education, to restore Pell eligibility. And your listeners may be surprised to hear this, but the Trump administration is, as far as we can tell, not opposing it. And it’s bipartisan legislation that has wide, across-the-aisle support, for all the reasons we’ve been talking about. So we’re kind of optimistic that as the film is coming out, and the stories are being shared, that we may actually see a serious change in this central issue.
RS: You know, you make an interesting point. And you say even the Trump administration–the fact is, liberals have not really been very good on something you would expect people who claim to be enlightened and, you know, have a sense of decency–and they haven’t backed rehabilitation.
RS: Which is the most obvious requirement–if you’re going to jail people, you know, for their crimes, you have to say we’re going to try to improve them. And one of the powerful things in this movie is you begin with the statement that many of the people you’re going to meet actually committed crimes, serious crimes. And so yes, this is not the Innocence Project, which is legitimate. This is not showing somebody who was arrested and convicted on a false basis. However–and the great power of this film is that it forces you to recognize the humanity of people that you have otherwise dismissed or not thought about. And in your case, Jule, can you take me to that neighborhood just for a minute. What was the subway–was that the Rutland Avenue subway station? Do you remember?
JH: Ah, yes. Wow, Bob, you’re very good. From the West Coast. Yes, Rutland Avenue is right there.
LN: You sound like you’re from the West Coast. [Laughter]
RS: Well, the reason I know it, I shivered on that station there at two in the morning a number of times because I was dating a woman from that neighborhood when it was still primarily a Jewish neighborhood, poor Jewish neighborhood. And I was a kid from the Bronx, close to where Colin Powell grew up, in the Bronx. And I had to now look forward to over an hour ride back up there. And when I was watching this movie I thought, you know, wait a minute. Did we leave out a very important part of this story? Because what was done for me as a kid, my parents were garment workers, and we had a lot of poverty, trouble and everything. Well, we–Colin Powell has actually written about this in his autobiography–we had the best schools. We had, you know, after-school programs. We had–we didn’t have, we had some zip guns out there, but we weren’t flooded with modern military hardware. You know, we didn’t have the drug infusion.
And so when you look at that movie–and it really gets to you, how many people in the film–you know, we’re talking about college behind bars, and how many of them got in there when they were 16, 17 years old. Well, what choices did they really have? So then, when you consider that–the idea that you’re not going to engage in serious rehabilitation of this human being–that is itself a criminal stance. And I want to take it to this darling now, because it’s very fashionable, we just pound on Trump, you know. And he’s, you know, unappealing in many ways. But the fact of the matter is, the great reversal–it used to be considered fairly routine to try to do some kind of rehabilitation in prison. That was part of the deal. You lock people up, you got to try to reach them, and try to make them better and be able to release them. And in something that sounds a little bit innocuous, but it was demagogically appealing, in 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Well, that’s Bill Clinton, right?
LN: Right, exactly.
RS: Yeah, well, then why did we let him off the hook? Why do we allow people now, you know, they’re all walking around thinking, well, we didn’t have any problems, you know, until this clownish president came along. And you know, and he’s scaring people, ill-mannered, and demagogic, and scapegoating. But wait a minute–it was Bill Clinton that was scapegoating anybody who ran on the wrong side of the law, saying: they’re gone. And that’s when they killed the program.
JH: And that’s the other side of it that you bring up, you bring up the infusion of guns and drugs in many communities. That, you know, it’s known in New York, there were studies that showed that most of the people in New York state prisons came from just five neighborhoods in New York City. And these neighborhoods were also, studies showed, these were million-dollar blocks. These were the cash pots that were feeding the prison-industrial complex. But the other side of it that you bring up with Clinton is also the rhetoric. The war on drugs. You know, the way in which, frankly, people were demonized as being predators and superpredators, and you know.
But you know, now I feel we’re in a good space. We have bipartisan support for this issue. And I agree, I think there’s a way in which we should hold people accountable. But I also want to bring people on board to make them see, like, this isn’t nothing new. College programs were successful in our prisons back in the sixties and seventies. There are new studies that show Malcolm X went to college while he was in prison, you know, so–you know, Nelson Mandela. I love to bring attention to the fact that there are people who have just the same potential in our prisons right now in America, and it’s important that we not allow people to just rot in there and just waste that potential. Because, frankly, we need help in society. We need people to come home with solutions and willing to work on some of the toughest problems we have in society, and many people who have had that impacted experience and education are fully capable to do so.
LN: And I would just chime in, one more sort of thread to this, which is, you know, part of this is out of the self-interest of the society, that we want to help–as you said, if we’re going to put people in prison, we want to make sure that when they come back home, they can be productive citizens, for all kinds of reasons. But we’re also–if we don’t offer educational opportunity across the board to everyone, we’re not availing ourselves of some of the most brilliant people that we have among us. And we have sort of just decided that we don’t even want to know. And we’re not giving–we’re not challenging people or giving them a chance to show what they can do.
I mean, for me, one of the most sort of devastating moments of the film is when one of the students, Dyjuan, he’s talking about why he wants–he’s trying to encourage other friends who are incarcerated to apply to the program. And he says they say, oh, I don’t know, you know, you students, you have to work so hard. And he says, I always tell them, you know, you don’t know what it’s like until you get in this program, and you have these incredible professors, and they start teaching you how smart you are. And that is such a profound statement. Dyjuan is brilliant, there’s no question, as are many of the other students that we’ve gotten to know. But he himself didn’t have any idea how smart he was, until he was in the classroom with a professor who expected him to achieve at the level that someone would in a Harvard classroom or wherever. And he and many other students in BPI just rose to that occasion. We see sort of students on this almost like warp-speed learning curve, having had–you know, Jule will talk about it, too–just what it was like academically before he was in the program, other school experiences. They’re just night and day.
JH: Yeah, I don’t think I wrote a paper, a complete paper, when I was in public school. I remember I used to read books, used to read the first chapter, the middle chapter and the last chapter, and was able to get by. You know, I wasn’t challenged to do more, so I just did the minimal amount that I thought was necessary in order to get by. And when I got into the Bard program, though, I realized I was sold short, you know. I realized, like, whoa, I need to have a refresher on grammar, I need to have this dictionary in hand to decipher some of the words in this passage. But nonetheless, you know, just like you’re saying, I also saw it wasn’t just me. I saw guys who were in the prison yard involved in all types of monotony, negativity. But once they got into the Bard prison program, they became some of the most engaged, articulate, intelligent people I’ve known.
RS: Let me talk a little bit about the film, because–and we’re talking to Jule Hall, who was one of the people in the program, and got out and now is working; we should talk about that. And Lynn Novick, you know, one of the great filmmakers, and has spent much of her life working with Ken Burns on classic films, like the one on the history of the Vietnam War and so forth. And yet, I think this is–you know, I can’t speak about your collected works and everything, but I just found this one of the most powerful films I’ve ever watched. And I was crying. It got to me. And I watched it a couple of times, because I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it. And what it really forces us to do is to deal with this question of what is humanity? What does it mean to be human? And what is your connection with the other members of this species? You know, and we pride ourselves that we have the ability to communicate, we have the ability to feel, we have the ability to comprehend, to dig deep into our consciousness. And all of that, you’re reminded in this film, is blotted out for 2 million–over 2 million people. America is distinguished with–certainly in per capita terms, but even in absolute terms, I think–with the largest prison population. Well, so, what does that say about your culture? What does it say about your lifestyle, that you have the largest prison population, and not just per capita, but you know, maybe–maybe it’s less so than China, I don’t know, there’s arguments about it. But really, why is that not a signature concern, that we do this? And then, if you have this prison population, as opposed to others, at least in some of the Scandinavian countries–we should talk about that–you know, they have more enlightened programs. Why are we so primitive?
And your film–and the filmmaking is stark, and the contrast of the humanity of the people in the program, and the starkness and the stifling claustrophobia of the cells which they go back to. It gave me, you know, shivers. I couldn’t live in that cell, you know. And I’ve been in one recently; I went up to interview Kevin Cooper, you know, who’s on death row in San Quentin; well, there they justify it, you’re on death row and so forth. And we were in the visiting cell, and even there I got claustrophobic. But you lived in that. I mean, it’s just–it would drive me nuts to be there. So we’re really barbaric in this incarceration program. And the college program–and Bard, I don’t know, it’s not the most famous college; it’s always had a great history. But they deserve a lot of credit for saying if we’re going to do education, we’re going to have the students come into classrooms, we’re going to develop another model where they can actually be with each other in seminars and talk. That’s why I’m going to show it anytime I teach a class, and I teach all the time here at the University of Southern California. Because I think our students should know how important education can be. And the demonstration of these students in the film really makes education more exciting than anything else I’ve ever seen on the power of ideas.
LN: Wow. I will say this–I actually had the privilege of teaching in this program myself before we started really working on the film. I taught an eight-week seminar about documentary and history, trying to kind of unpack what is true, actually, in this era of fake news, and you know, what is a fact. It was an interesting class to engage the students on. And, you know, there’s this sense of liberation in the classroom. And really, you do sort of forget where you are–at least if you’re the professor, it’s easier, but even so, I think for the students there’s the sense that the act of learning itself is so liberating. And it helps to situate yourself, like Jule was saying, but also just use your mind in a way that you don’t normally have the opportunity. And I felt the entire time I was teaching that it was such a pure experience of the joy of learning, and what is possible when people really give themselves over to that. There’s no distractions in the classroom. There’s no smartboard; there’s no internet, so there’s no cell phones; there’s no–everyone’s really engaged with each other in this incredible way that is rare in our society right now. How many times have I been in a meeting where someone gets out their phone, or you know, isn’t paying attention. In those classrooms, with the material that’s being engaged and the professor sort of facilitating a conversation, we saw some really profound human connections and exchanges happen. It was totally exhilarating.
JH: Yeah. Yeah, and I think that’s the key. You know, the way, one of the ways in which I was [able] to escape that cell was my books. I was able to read and prepare for class, and then the classroom–oh my goodness, the classroom was so dynamic and special, to be able to sit in a classroom with eight other people. And I think it’s important to emphasize it was a democratic structure in the classroom. We sat around in circles and we received our lectures, and everyone contributed. So it was like a process in which I was not only benefiting from the professor and the text that I was reading, but I had seven or eight other individuals in the classroom whose perspectives had access to. And to me that was, like, so beautiful and so eye-opening. And frankly, when I went back to my cell, yes, you know, that was a depressing part of it. But I lived for the sake of reading and engaging myself in a constructive manner, you know, so.
RS: Well, you know, one of the powerful things about this film–and the film is College Behind Bars, and it’s really inspiring in so many ways. But, you know, the excellence, the absolute excellence–first of all, people are learning Mandarin. I wasn’t able to learn Mandarin when I was in the Center for Chinese Studies at Berkeley. I thought how did–you know, they’re learning it. You know, and it’s a pretty–it’s a tonal, complex language. You learned German, you know, another subject I failed at in high school, you know. [Laughter] And I thought, my goodness–and then mathematics, and so forth. But there was one moment I really would love to, you know, at the end of this podcast, you know, to play that ,where the fellow, and I forgot his name, [but] it’s all about the black body. And it is one of the highest, and one of the finest bits of writing and reading that I think I’ve heard in the last 20 years. Can you set that stage?
LN: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. So you’re speaking about Rodney Spivey-Jones, who’s one of the students we got to know very well. To get a degree–so I should say also, this is a fully accredited program. So the students get the same degree as, the same education as on the Bard campus, held to the same standards. They get an associate’s degree, which is a two-year college degree, and then can apply for a bachelor’s degree, which is another two years at least, with a senior project involved. And Jule will tell you about his senior project, which is also amazing. We were able to follow students as they were preparing for their senior project, which is a year-long, 80-to-100-page, original research paper. And Rodney told us what he was working on for quite a while, and it was actually hard to really understand in the abstract, but it had to do with the representation of some of the tragedies that have happened in the black community over the years, and how the images and the stories have been used to have the country understand the racial injustice of our society.
JH: You’ve got to see the film to really appreciate it. [Laughs]
LN: Yeah. And you can play the clip, I think you have access to the whole film, you could play–so at the end, you know, this is a long process of working with your advisor and meeting and doing research. And a lot of his research involved doing research on Black Lives Matter, and connecting that to Emmett Till, and to the earlier civil rights incidents that happened that galvanized the movement. And so he had to do his research by basically making requests to the Bard College campus library to get research materials that he would then incorporate into his writing. And he shared with us–we filmed him over the course of a year working on this, and then presenting it to the faculty and discussing back and forth some of his ideas and how he came to the conclusions that he came. And then he read the afterword, which is kind of his statement about what it was like, what this project meant to him personally. And I agree with you. I mean, we all cried when we heard that. It was beautiful. I wasn’t there that day, the producer Sarah Botstein was in the prison with the camera crew that day. So I only discovered that when she brought the footage back, and I watched it, and it’s an unbelievable piece of writing, I agree.
JH: Yes, and it’s so timely, it’s so–it just goes to show the way in which people who are on the inside are concerned with current issues and what’s going on in society, and want to be a part of it. You know, I think it bears emphasizing that the Bard prison program pushed us to not only research to come up with the idea, and research and write the project, but then we had to defend it before three professors. And that’s the part that you catch with Rodney in the film that I think is so wonderful and electric and exciting.
LN: I have to say, Jule’s senior project is equally impressive.
JH: My project was I investigated the ways in which West Germany in 1954 worked to create a multicultural society by using migrant workers called Gastarbeiter. And the ways in which that was used to first portray Germany as a multicultural society, but by the time the Berlin Wall fell in the 1980s, late 1980s, these same migrants were demonized. And it became a way in which Germanness became a thing again. So German distinctiveness–because they were migrants in the society, German distinctiveness became a thing again. So it was 128-page project, one of the hardest things that I had to do; I had to read from German and translate it. I engaged both culture, history, as well as anthropology in the project.
RS: So you learned German in–we’re not allowed to say prison, because that dehumanizes it, but you know, incarceration, right?
JH: While I was incarcerated, we took a German lit and translation class. And you know, my fellow classmates and I had the gall to criticize the translation and say, this is a bad translation! This doesn’t even sound right! And the professor challenged us. He said, you know, I teach German, a four-semester course; you could take German and read it in the original language. And we took up the challenge. And I just took to it; it’s something about the language that I just adore, all German culture I’m so interested in, and it has stuck with me.
RS: Well, you do–let me just say, by the way, I was going to get to your project too. Because you said something compelling about it. You said you wanted to understand Germany, because they had had the greatest lapse, the greatest fall from any standard of human decency, right? And you connected it with what had happened in Germany, as I recall, in the film.
JH: Yes, one of the things that interested me was the way in which Germany had that really horrible past, and was involved in that past. But what’s important and attractive to me is their manner in trying to deal with it. You know, they put a societal effort into trying to engage the past in a constructive way to create a new society. And you know, Germany by 1954 was one of the most successful democracies in the world. So you know, for me, that is such an example of not only reparations here in America and how America could deal with it, but also our immigration problem. The ways in which, you know, Germany basically engaged the immigration program out of necessity to bring itself back into the democratic world.
RS: [Speaks German]
JH: Ah! Sehr gut, sehr gut!
RS: But let me just say, what I found so powerful in relating it back to the basic theme of the film about the capacity for rehabilitation. Here’s a society that required the rehabilitation of–you know, there were very few resistors. I happen to come from, you know, German stock on my father’s side; I’ve gone back there many times to figure out, how did they go from being one of the most admired civilizations to the most, you know, contemptible, in a very short time. And then after the war, they had to struggle with that. And so here we are treating people who are incarcerated in our country for crimes, you know, often not rising close to what, you know, ordinary good Germans did. And yet we forgave the whole culture. We rehabilitated, we supported their reconstruction. We didn’t say if you’re German, you know, you are not human, you have no human capacity, which we have done.
And we haven’t talked about race much, but watching this film, you are reminded that there’s a disproportionate number of black people, people of color, in this system of incarceration. And the fact is, to me, it’s really interesting. Here we say, oh, you were a 17-year-old and you committed some crime–lock you up and throw away the key, and you can’t learn anything, you can’t be better. But for the whole German population after being the most barbaric in human history–well, you know, we can work with you again. And I was really intrigued in the film when you said, hey, I want to know more about those people.
JH: Yeah, I think there’s something that we can learn from. I think, you know, there’s a lot we can say about the difference between the two societies, whereas America is highly individual, and Germany has a level of social responsibility, and an entire society where people are–there’s a structure for them to think of each other as a collective. You know, there’s something in America about our individualism, that we fight against any perception that things aren’t only on the individual’s responsibility. And I think this is something–I don’t have no problem with that; I just think we need to also recognize we live in a society with each other. You know? And how do we, you know, find ways to work together to deal with these issues.
LN: And I think, I absolutely agree that the question of race is central to this conversation. And you know, when I think about the story, with Jule talking about Germany and whether America has reckoned with our own past of slavery, and Jim Crow and institutional structural discrimination, racism. And the, as you say, the injustice of the prison system, and the lack of educational opportunity in these violent communities where no resources are there, and failing schools. And you know, it’s a huge long–not list, but it’s a litany of injustice around the question of race and who’s a worthy deserving citizen, and who deserves certain benefits and who doesn’t, and who should be locked up and who shouldn’t, and all those questions. It’s a lot we have to still untangle as a society and we have to reckon with, and we really haven’t.
JH: Not to mention the technology. You know, I love to–I think it’s very important that authors like Michelle Alexander and artists like Ava DuVernay are encouraging us to see these affinities between slavery in America and our current state of mass incarceration. Because I was in there and I saw some of the technology, the handcuffs, the way in which we’re searched, the ways in which we were fed, that shows great affinities with slavery. So, you know, there’s a way in which slavery and its structure and operation was, or is the basis for how prison operates.
RS: Well, and also why a certain group of people are more represented in the prison, because they are black. And that, I think–I don’t want to put ideas here and attribute them incorrectly, but wasn’t that the whole point of, I forget his name now, Rodney, who did that senior project that we were talking about?
LN: Yeah, in a way, yeah. It’s not explicitly that, but yes.
RS: –evoking this whole history building up to this.
LN: Yes, absolutely.
JH: Yeah, he takes the position that history is circular.
RS: But you know what, with your power over this film, Lynn Novick, maybe you can make that clip available that we can–
LN: We certainly will.
RS: –embed, and then people can listen to it. Because I’ll tell you, not to take anything away from any other part of it, but somebody listening to that is going to say, I want more people like that out there who can write like that, think like that. And he’s harassed in the jail, right? Isn’t he run afoul of something–or maybe I’m confusing him with someone else.
LN: Yes, you’re right.
JH: Yeah, he was sent to what’s called the SHU, which stands for special housing unit–there’s other words, like the box, the hole, you know–for writing an essay that used explicit language.
RS: Oh, that’s right. He was–what was it, was–a theatrical piece.
LN: It was a short story. Yeah, he wrote, it was a piece of fiction. And he wrote a dialogue in this short story between a man and a woman who were having an argument. And he said that it was very contentious, and there was sexual language and some profanity. And one of the officers read the paper and said this is inappropriate, and they put him in the SHU. And he was, you know, potentially charged with a serious violation of prison rules. And you know, one of the things in the film that we follow along the way is that if people get in trouble while they’re in the program, they might be sent to SHU or they might even get sent to another prison, and then they might not be able to continue their studies. And the program doesn’t ever expel people if they violate a prison rule, but they just, you know, physically can’t be there. So one of the students we met had actually failed a drug test, and there are a lot of people in prison who struggle with addiction issues, as he himself said, and so he failed a drug test and he was sent away from the prison where Bard operated to another prison. And it took him six years to get back to the place where he had started college. And, you know, it’s partly just the punitive nature of the system and, quote unquote, “security.” But also, again, this question of, you know, if someone–what is prison for? What are we trying to do?
JH: Yeah, and I think it also is indicative of the ways in which prisons are so obscure in our society. You know, we had this big craze in the late nineties, the war on drugs, like you said, Bob, lock ’em up and throw away the key. But I love the way, you know, certain people talk about it–they say, and then what? You know, so people didn’t follow or don’t follow what happens to people once they’re incarcerated. And I think it’s very crucial, because prison is a microcosm of society, that we pay attention to what’s going on in there. So here you have it: in a democratic society, a person is incarcerated in a school program, and he’s given further penalties for just exercising the right to free speech, in a fictional sense. You know?
RS: You know, this movie–and because we hear voices like yours, Jule–and I don’t want people to think it’s depressing, because it’s not. There’s a lot of energy, there’s humor, there’s wisdom, there’s poetry. And obviously, Lynn Novick, who is the director of this–I mean, this is a beautifully made documentary. It’s about as good as a documentary can be, in terms of the lighting and the effects and everything. So there’s no question about that. But you know, it really, at the end of the day, what it does is it makes visible the humanity of these people we have in cages. And I was thinking of what you just said about, for instance, in California, which is supposed to be an enlightened state–deep blue, right, everybody’s very proud, progressive, you know, and everything else. But when you go down the major highways, highway 5, highway 99 and so forth, you’re passing one prison after another, hidden–hidden off, and that prison is the center of the economy of an otherwise failed town. Or, you know, that’s where the jobs are, mechanization has eliminated a lot of jobs. And so we live with this prison-industrial complex as a source of income, as a way of things that politicians can exploit in a demagogic fashion and so forth. And–and it’s sick. You know, that’s what I’m drawing from this. It forces you to think about, you know, who are we? You know, what are we really doing here?
LN: Right. I think it’s Dostoyevsky, right, who says that you can tell whatever you need to know about a society by looking at what’s going on in the prisons. I’m not quoting it exactly, Jule could probably–
JH: Ah, Alex de Tocqueville also says that. You know, you want to know about America, go to their prisons, go to their slave populations, you’ll learn a lot about America.
RS: Is that from de Tocqueville?
JH: Tocqueville talks about the slave populations, yes.
RS: Oh, yeah, yeah, but I mean–yeah. So let me ask you finally–we’re going to have to wrap it up, I know you have to leave–the film, how do people get to watch it now, by the way?
LN: Oh, thank you, yeah. So–right, so the film is available, College Behind Bars, you can stream it on PBS, pbs.org/collegebehindbars. There’s also a PBS app you can download on your phone or on your, whatever device or you know, if you have Apple TV or one of those, there’s a PBS part of that. So it’s available for free, streaming for free. You can also buy the DVDs, if you want them, on Shop PBS.
You know, really, thank you so much for having us on. Because we really feel so passionately about this story, and we want people to watch it. Because I think what we’ve seen is that everyone who’s watched it has had a similar reaction to yours–which is, I didn’t know this story, I didn’t know the people whose stories are told, I didn’t understand the issues, and prison is so far away for most of us, we don’t have access. And so, and it is inspiring–frankly, you know, I think one of the most beautiful scenes for us is their graduation. So we meet people at the beginning of the program; many of them are just, you know, never been to college–
RS: Oh, I have to apologize. The graduation–and by the way, we haven’t mentioned the women in prison. And one of the graduations is–we’ll talk about it a little bit–one of the graduations is with women in prison. I have never seen more inspiring graduation ceremonies. I forgot about it completely. Those are the most inspiring graduation ceremonies that I’ve ever seen. And I’ve gone to, I don’t know, 150 of them, but you know, it was unbelievable. So describe that scene.
LN: Well, I think one of the things that’s so beautiful is that it’s philosophically and just, you know, so sort of essential to the program that they bring their graduation, the pomp and circumstance and everything, to the prison. So the president of the college is there, there’s a band, everyone’s in their cap and gowns, all the faculty are with all their, you know, various robes. There’s various speakers, there’s diplomas, it’s just like a graduation at USC or anywhere else. And then you have all the families of the graduates are there, or as many, you know, they can bring four or five guests. So their families come in, and often people’s children, parents, grandparents. The first time I went to a graduation, we weren’t filming, I was just, we were just getting our feet wet. And one of the students–every time I go, I cry, because the students say the most beautiful things. And I think we just get a sense of the power of education and the hope for the future. And I think at the end, one of the graduates said that graduation was like utopia. So that was pretty beautiful.
JH: Yes. And it’s very important–if I may, just real quick–I’m so glad you brought that up, because women are the fastest incarcerated population right now. So it’s [important] to see that for women, it’s a totally different experience. We have women in the program who are home, doing great things, but I just want to bring attention to the fact that that’s a totally different area that we really need to pay attention to.
RS: So Jule, can you explain how people can get in touch with the work that you’re doing, and you know, what you’re doing outside?
JH: Well, I’m currently working for the Ford Foundation as a program associate. You know, that allows me to engage with strategy development and, you know, data analysis in relation to our portfolios of criminal justice reform, immigration rights, as well as, you know, advancing gender and reproductive justice. You know, I’m on LinkedIn, you could contact me there. As my official capacity at the Ford Foundation, that’s something totally separate; you know, we don’t take RFPs or we don’t request proposals, so you know, that’s–I’m not a funder myself, so I’ll always bring that disclosure. Although I work for the Ford Foundation, my views are my own and not of the Ford Foundation.
RS: OK. And then, you know, let me–first of all, we haven’t mentioned, I want to give a little credit to Bard–not a little, a lot of credit to Bard College for having a prison initiative. And, you know, we spend a lot of government money on a lot of things. You know, we have the biggest military budget right now that we’ve ever had, actually. And this is a small college, right, Bard? It’s a small liberal arts college. And just, let’s give them a little credit here, that they’ve created a model that the rest of the country ought to be paying more attention to.
LN: Could not agree more, and that’s really why we made the film. And I will say, as we’ve been working on sharing the film and thinking about what we hope viewers and others will take away, first of all we want the restoration of Pell Grants, for sure, so that more programs can exist. But we also feel really strongly–I’ll speak for myself personally–that the elite institutions of higher learning in our country, like my alma mater Yale, which has a small program that they just started with seed money from Bard College, which has no money–you know, need to think about their responsibility to the society at large. And, you know, to think about the students they’re missing out on by not providing opportunities to people who are incarcerated, or people who were formerly incarcerated. And you know, like, Yale has a $30 billion endowment. What are they doing with all that money? They’re building more buildings and more student centers and whatever. And you know, these programs are not expensive, and they bring in brilliant students, and they [come] down to the good of all. So we just sort of hope the film challenges everybody in the world of education to think about how we can extend opportunity as well.
RS: You know, I have to end this with–to me, first of all, there is optimism in this movie. I mean you had, as opposed to Bill Clinton who helped increase this problem dramatically, you had Barack Obama in your film, you know, questioning, promising to do something different. You had responsible media people, Judy Woodruff for instance; you had PBS drawing attention to it. And you get the feeling we actually have some bipartisan support for recognizing, first of all, it’s incredibly expensive and wasteful of taxpayer money and human resources to have this prison-industrial complex. It’s dehumanizing, and on every level it violates–one of the things we didn’t mention, but some of the podcasts I’ve done on this subject, surprisingly enough, from conservative Christian communities you have the belief in redemption and rehabilitation. You know, in Angola prison, Gary Tyler, who I did the podcast with–he was in there 43 years, but they put on the passion play about the death of Christ because, you know, the chance to do acting and learn and so forth. So liberal people listening to the show should not be smug about that this is an issue where liberals bear as much responsibility as conservatives.
LN: Well said. I completely agree.
RS: OK. Then I got a last question for you, Lynn Novick, because I teach in a school of communication and journalism, ranked very highly, and so forth. And I want to know, here you are, someone who is very successful, you know, and you work with Ken Burns on these different projects, and probably recognized as the best documentary filmmakers alive, et cetera, et cetera. I mean, you have that whole reputation. And you got into this really tough issue, and you put a lot of time into it. And I’m here as a teacher trying to motivate students that they don’t have to sell out, that they can have a life of principle, they can make life better for people who are being ignored, you know, and not supported. And so just, you know, what got you into this project and what have you, you know, what have you learned from it?
LN: Well, I will say, I feel so grateful that I had the opportunity to make this film with Sarah Botstein, the producer I’ve worked with for many years. Because, and both of us talk about this a lot, that we’re really not the same people that we were when we started this film. It changed the way we think about pretty much everything, and I hope made us better people and better filmmakers. But we got the chance to just teach a class in the program, and we’re so inspired by the students, and really exhilarated and also devastated to think about this incredible talent and capacity and intellectual sort of fervor, and then think about where it’s happening and the juxtaposition of those two things. It’s oxymoronic, I guess we would say, you know, that there’s this brilliant, academic, intellectual engagement and seriousness of purpose in a place where we least expect it, for all the reasons you have said. And so we, you know, our first reaction was this would be an amazing film. And our second thought was, we don’t have time, we’re busy working on our Vietnam series. In fact, I was about to go to Vietnam, right about a week after I first went to visit the BBI classroom, but it really stayed with us. And over time, we just became more and more sort of dedicated, I guess, to the idea that this story was so important, and that the students that we met, we wanted the rest of the world to know. And so it was really a wing and a prayer. Honestly, it wasn’t part of the Ken Burns kind of infrastructure. It wasn’t from, you know, we had to go out and raise the money ourselves, and little by little kind of put the film together and beg, borrow and plead and cajole. And yes, we had our day job, so we were able to keep, you know, working with Ken on the Vietnam War and other projects, which has been great. This was a part-time project over many years, because we wanted to show how people can be transformed through education. So you have to see that happen over time. So it took four years to film, and two years to edit. And it was incredibly demanding and challenging, intellectually and emotionally, psychically, in every other way. And we grew a lot, we learned a lot, we met extraordinary people that we consider some of our best friends to this day. So, and we really hope that–you know, forget about us, that the film can really change the way we think about education and prison in our society. So it’s been an incredible privilege. And I will never think about education, incarceration, filmmaking, politics, human beings, the human condition, the same way again.
JH: But I will say on your behalf, Lynn, you got proximate. You allowed yourself to get close to the issue, and become genuine friends. You’re one of my best friends right now, Lynn, you know. And it’s amazing the way in which people who want to be impacted, all they have to do is get proximate and allow themselves, that space to be open, you know, and you’ll see some dynamic things.
LN: Wow, thank you for saying that. It was really important. It was such a privilege to be able to get to know Jule and the other students that we got to know, and also so inspiring to see so many of the students that we filmed and got to know first while they were incarcerated, no longer in prison. Out here in the world, doing amazing things and living their lives. And so that’s another level of transformation that we got to sort of witness and be a little small part of. I always think a little bit about, what effect did it have on the people in the film to have us there with the cameras? Because you can’t say that we were just flies on the wall. You know, cinema verite is supposed to be the truth, and I think we all know that having a camera does change things. But we hope that it only did that a little bit, and that life would have went on pretty much the same way it would have otherwise. But that’s always a question.
RS: So four years to film, two years to edit, and really get at a problem, an issue–crime, incarceration–that other people treat with 10 minutes of thought, and a 10-second sound bite. That’s really the difference between real news and fake news. Real news is trying to really comprehend an issue, and what can you really do about it? Fake news is exploiting it, as I dare say President Clinton did, and end at that time a college education program that would clearly help people. He’s not the only one, but that’s something really to think about, you know. And my hat’s off to you people for making it. And that’s it. Hopefully we can have an impact here. Well, that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence has come from our guests. [omission]