Inmates hit the books to have a future in PBS’ ‘College Behind Bars’
The age-old debate about whether incarceration is for punishment or rehabilitation gets a vehement argument for the latter in a documentary premiering this week on PBS.
On “College Behind Bars,” a four-part, four-hour film airing Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 2526 (check local listings), viewers are introduced to the Bard Prison Initiative, a rigorous education program run by upstate New York’s Bard College that provides opportunities for inmates to earn associates and bachelor’s degrees in six prisons across the state.
Directed by Lynn Novick (“The Vietnam War,” “Baseball”) and produced by her longtime collaborators Ken Burns and Sarah Botstein, the documentary goes inside medium and maximum security prisons to meet the students and educators in the program and touch on the questions surrounding it, chief among them whether our criminal justice system is doing enough to prepare incarcerated men and women to reenter society and become productive citizens.
“One of the things that makes the program unique,” Botstein explained to a recent gathering of journalists in Beverly Hills, Calif., “is its rigor and its commitment to providing the same education that ... they do on the main Bard College campus, and that’s a centrally important, fundamental principle of the curriculum. And having said that, I think being in a classroom and filming with these students over the last four years made all of us and everyone in our crew question our own education and how hard we had worked and how seriously they took their education and how meaningful, in this day and age, a liberal arts education can be.”
The film points out that of the 630,000 inmates that are released annually in the U.S., nearly half wind up back in prison within five years, trapped in a cycle of imprisonment, release and reincarceration. As one inmate in the film says, “Prison is to punish. ... Individuals are not being prepared for anything other than what they’ve already been doing – crime.”