Documentary captures transformative power of education for incarcerated students

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns visited Georgetown University this week for a panel discussion on the power of education and narrative to address societal issues, including educational access within U.S. prisons.

The event, sponsored by Georgetown and The Better Angels Society, screened clips from College Behind Bars, a new four-part documentary series executive produced by Burns. Slated to air on PBS in fall 2019, the four-hour series was filmed across four years to show the progression of incarcerated students pursuing degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative, which offers a pathway to an associate’s and then bachelor’s degree. Data from the initiative indicate that 97.5 percent of its graduates do not return to prison after their release.

Event panelists included: Lynn Novick, director and producer of College Behind Bars; Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative; Jule Hal, alumnus of the Bard Prison Initiative; Marc Howard, professor of government and law at Georgetown University and founding director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative; Shon Hopwood, associate professor of law at Georgetown University; George Chochos, project manager of the Georgetown Pivot Program; and Brian Ferguson, executive director of DC Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs.

Sharing insights inside prison walls

The documentary, filmed in maximum- and medium-security prisons in New York State, seeks to put “a human face on mass incarceration and the lives of real people, caught up in the system,” Director Lynn Novick told The Chronicle of Higher Education. It asks viewers to consider the purpose of prison, the distribution of educational opportunity, and society’s investments in self-improvement, higher education, and redemption.

Novick recalls being struck by the engagement and high level of discourse in prison-based classrooms despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of electronic aides. “The students are not on their phones or on their computers. So there’s total focus and attention on the conversation that’s happening in the classroom,” she said. Novick recalls seeing individuals who had been convicted of violent offenses learn how to think critically and channel their emotions: “Many [Bard program participants] speak about how the experience of going through the program and learning to be a critical thinker and express themselves in a deep way enables them to become civic beings, to become more participant in our civil society, to understand themselves and their world, and each other.”

Investing in future citizens

Some formerly incarcerated individuals have gone on to become powerful advocates for reform of the criminal justice system and expanding educational opportunities in prison. One such person, Michelle Jones, served 20 years in prison; she is now a second-year doctoral student at New York University and board chair of Constructing Our Future, a reentry alternative for women created by incarcerated women in Indiana, writes Future Ed. Jones advocates for banning the box requiring disclosure of criminal histories on college applications, lifting the federal ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students, and imposing stricter standards on participating colleges and universities to protect students against predatory behavior.

“We know that formerly incarcerated people with college degrees once released are four to five times less likely to return to prison and that the benefits go far beyond reduced recidivism. That makes higher education a good investment,” writes Jones. “Correctional education programs result in net savings to taxpayers of between $4 and $5 for every $1 invested and are substantially more cost-effective than incarceration alone.”

Learn more about Georgetown’s prison and justice programs

Georgetown is home to several efforts aimed at addressing the problem wrongful incarceration and educating inmates while they are in prison and after their release. These include Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program at the DC Jail, a Prison Reform Project course, its custom paralegal program for returning citizens, and its Pivot Program. Last year, the work of students in Georgetown’s Prison Reform Project course helped free Valentino Dixon, who had been wrongfully convicted and served in jail for 27 years before he was released this past September.

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