The Whitney Humanities Center auditorium filled on Tuesday as viewers poured in to watch clips from College Behind Bars — a new documentary following students seeking degrees in the Bard Prison Initiative, one of the most rigorous prison education programs in the country.
The docuseries, directed by Lynn Novick ’83, will air in full on PBS in November. This preview-and-discussion event was sponsored by the Yale Prison Education Initiative, a Dwight Hall affiliated group that offers Yale courses and credits to incarcerated students. Novick said the film addresses two key questions: “What is prison for?” and “Who in our country has access — and who should have access — to high-quality education?”. Novick added that underlying all of that, there is the very intertwined question of social justice and race in our country.
The film centered around the stories of incarcerated individuals in BPI and was filmed in maximum and medium security prisons in New York State. Many of the clips shown at the event showed classroom activity. Among the subjects being taught seminar-style were “The Irish in America,” “Linear Algebra,” and” Intermediate Chinese.”
“It was extraordinarily intellectually challenging to be in the classroom with the incarcerated students, trying to understand what the students were studying,” Novick said.
The campus sponsor — YPEI, which is a member of BPI’s national Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison — was founded in 2016 by Zelda Roland ’08 GRD ’16, and marked the first time any incarcerated student had ever enrolled in Yale College credits. Though their primary work is to offer Yale College courses in prisons, the group also works on establishing relationships with community organizations to help connect students with continuing educational opportunities. Roland describes YPEI as a part of a wider national movement.
The documentary clips also showed personal aspects of the lives of those incarcerated, including family visitations and reflections on their life stories. Jule Hall, one of the incarcerated persons featured in the film and one of the panelists at the event, said he appreciated the filmmakers’ attention to human detail.
Hall earned a degree in German through BPI, which he said he pursued due to a love of the language and an interest in German culture and history. He said he was particularly intrigued by “the way in which [the] society reckoned with their wrongs and created a process through which transformation could occur.”
“I was concerned that the filmmakers would record us in a way that would reinforce stigma,” Hall said. “But I was amazed at the way in which they humanized us. They came to our homes — there’s even one part where my aunt cooks, and we’re eating.”
The film was shot over the course of four years. Producer Sarah Botstein said that the primary challenge was gaining and maintaining access to the prisons and striving to achieve a closeness that represented an “opportunity for camera to bring people in proximity to a world that most Americans don’t have access to.”
According to Novick, directing the series relied on building trust and getting to know the individuals over long periods of time. She added that she is grateful individuals let her film their lives.
Roland believes that events like this can help shift the narrative surrounding incarcerated students. In an interview with the News, she highlighted that a lot of incarcerated students have potential similar to that of Yale students.
One attendee, Gretchen Berland, who is an associate professor of medicine at the Yale Medical School, takes care of patients with a history of incarceration. She said she appreciated the care the film took with patients’ stories.
“It creates very powerful personal dimensions to an experience that can be so depersonalizing. That’s why it works,” Berland said. “It’s the antithesis of what incarceration is all about — incarceration is dehumanizing, it takes away your identity, it’s disempowering.”
Kinsale Hueston ’22, said that after watching the documentary clips, she feels motivated to work with YPEI in the future, calling the film “a stepping stone towards taking action, instead of just sitting back and learning things in class.”
Novick called on Yale to invest more in these issues. As a Yale alumna, she hopes that her alma mater uses its resources, social capital, prestige and money to make society better.
“I don’t see how Yale could do that if it doesn’t invest in programs like BPI and YPEI,” Novick said. “It’s otherwise in a dangerous place of hoarding privilege, rather than making it more available in our society.”
She highlighted BPI’s major accomplishments, even with limited resources.
22 percent of people in state prison have had some form of postsecondary education.
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Correction, Oct. 4: In a previous version of this article, Jule Hall was referred to as “Jule Hill.” Additionally, a quote from Lynn Novick ’83 was updated to accurately reflect the interview.