When the school’s students imagine higher education, most do not envision receiving that education behind bars. However, the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) offers prisoners an opportunity for education and reform at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility.
On Tuesday, Lynn Novick ‘79 spoke to the school about “College Behind Bars,” her newest documentary, which details the work of the BPI.
Novick was joined on stage by BPI graduate Wesley Caines; they both responded to the audience’s questions about the documentary and their experiences. While the assembly only featured Novick and Caines, Jody Lewen ‘82, who leads a college program at San Quentin State Prison, was also present during an open question-and-answer talkback session during D and E periods.
The presentation began with a short clip from Novick’s documentary where a BPI student defends his senior paper in front of three professors. “Lynn grabs onto topics that are important for people to know about,” science teacher Dr. Susan Delanty ‘79, who was in the same class as Novick, said. “Her work speaks to history and to justice and to truth.”
“I think it is impossible to watch the documentary and not really, seriously, think about what our criminal justice system looks like, what our prison system looks like, and the power that education can have,” Upper Division Dean of Students Michael Dalo said.
Throughout the assembly, Novick and Caines spoke about multiple elements of the documentary and the justice system, including the exclusion of the Federal Pell Grant Program from prisons. “I think it’s very important to bring attention to the fact that there’s no government funding for these types of programs and how they’re understaffed,” David Maydan (10) said.
While a student at the school, Novick was aware of the importance of politics and engagement, as the Watergate scandal had broken a few years earlier, she said. In her junior year, Novick took an Urban Studies elective. “We read some seminal texts about inequality, about American society, about urban renewal, [and] about politics in New York that really opened my eyes,” she said.
Initially impressed by the BPI, Novick said she contacted the program and taught an eight week course about history and documentary in 2013. The professorial relationship that she built with her students only further intrigued her and Sarah Botstein, Novick’s co-producer, and they began filming in 2014, she said.
“Lynn’s work is similar to investigative journalism. It’s highly structured and really wonderful,” Art of Film Teacher Joseph Timko said. The importance of her discoveries are embedded in the type of media she works with, especially since film is a major part of today’s culture in this time, he said.
A history major at the BPI and a member of the first graduating class, Caines wrote his senior paper on “a survey of black conservative thought in America,” he said. BPI was a grueling process: Caines would take one or two classes a night after a full day of work. He said that he would then return to the dorm around 8:30 p.m. and complete three to four hours of homework before waking up the next day at 8:30 a.m. for work.
“Bard is a far superior opportunity at education than I had previously had,” Caines said. In fact, he pins his success to his BPI experience because “there’s a big difference between walking out with a graduate degree and walking out with nothing but a smile,” he said. “I learned how important education is for incarcerated people because it can help them assimilate back into society when they are released,” Rohan Buluswar (10) said.
During his time at the program, Caines said that his favorite memory wasn’t a single moment, but rather the metamorphosis that takes place during the course of a semester: students initially feel almost disoriented, but they and their professors challenge one another through discourse. After receiving his Bachelor’s Degree, Caines continued to stay involved by tutoring other individuals to help them prepare for the admissions essay.
The BPI admittance process is highly competitive and includes essay writing and multiple interviews, Caines said. No more than 16 people are admitted each year, while almost 200 candidates apply.
Last year, Upper Division Director of Student Activities Caroline Bartels and Delanty were discussing alums returning to speak about their work when PBS started to show advertisements for “College Behind Bars,” Bartels said. Delanty had a connection with Novick because they graduated together, and the assembly grew from there, she said. “I think it’s just so important for people to think about how lucky we are,” Bartels said. “If life were just a little bit turned on its axis, that could be any one of us.”
After the assembly, Lewen joined the assembly’s speakers for a talkback session. At the beginning of her career , Lewen co-taught a course at San Quentin College, she said.
Lewen credits some of her success in her line of work to the school, she said. At the school, she “saw what an academically high-functioning school looks like,” which she sought to implement at San Quentin, she said. Additionally, Lewen said that the school gave her the confidence she needed to be successful. “It made me very determined. I learned to be very empowered and entitled, in the right way.”
The assembly was necessary not only because of its topic, but because of its audience, Lewen said. “I often find that young people understand this work better than older people do,” she said. “They often have a more recent experience with being powerless. So maybe they can relate to the experience of incarceration. They have more sensitivity towards incarceration.”
Sogona Cisse (11) was impressed by how the assembly shifted her perspective on correctional facilities with access to educational opportunities, she said. “It’s amazing that the Bard Prison Initiative was able to transform the lives of so many, and the low recidivism rates and even the film show how effective education is, and how important it is in rehabilitation.”
Additionally, the younger generation is often really good at navigating the technology that spreads knowledge to other people, Lewen said. “When young people get influenced by these ideas, they are really well equipped to teach others.”
“It’s important for students to really reflect and all of us really to reflect on the fact that education is a privilege, and it’s one that we are lucky to have,” Dalo said. “I think we’re even more lucky and more privileged to have the education that we have at Horace Mann School and to recognize that it’s not something that most people have access to.”