Following grading for the fall semester, I turned my attention to a gripping documentary that I believe everyone who cares about a strong and engaged citizenry should watch: "College Behind Bars." "College Behind Bars" aired on PBS last month and has four episodes that trace the difficult and inspiring academic journeys of male inmates at the Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York, and female inmates further upstate at the Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills. These inmates bear an unusual duality. They are prisoners behind bars, but they are also students behind desks. They are studying for associate and bachelor's degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), one of the nation's most demanding college programs. The first episode, "No One Ever Taught Me Any of That," begins with a thought-provoking quote from Rodney Spivey-Jones, a BPI student pursuing a BA in social studies. "Prison is here to punish us. It's here to warehouse us," he says. "It's not about rehabilitating. It's not about creating productive beings."
Recidivism statistics cited in "College Behind Bars" actually back up Jones' assertion. Every year in the U.S., 630,000 men and women are released from prison, but in just three short years, nearly half are incarcerated again. These troubling numbers are proof that something is terribly wrong within our correctional system. Rehabilitation is definitely not occurring when men and women return to their communities and are not able to contribute and prosper.
As I was listening to the personal testimonies of the BPI students, I could not help but think of what some of these young men and women could have become had they had better educational opportunities when they were growing up. The majority of BPI students featured in the documentary are African American and Hispanic, and they are from some of the poorest New York neighborhoods, with failing public schools. Some had parents who were on drugs or had guardians who passed away due to illness. Some joined gangs and became high school dropouts. Thus, it is no surprise that they succumbed to crime. I am not making excuses for the choices they made, some which were tragic and deserving of serious punishment. However, many of these horrible decisions were made in youth. Take, for instance, BPI student Giovannie Hernandez, who got into a knife fight and killed someone before he was 16. One would hope that rehabilitation is still possible for someone that young.
A sad truth that "College Behind Bars" reveals is how unforgiving our society is when it comes to who we think deserves a second chance. The documentary referenced the 1994 crime bill, which eliminated Pell Grants for prison inmates. BPI was founded in 1999 and relies on private donations to fund its programs. Supporters of the '90s crime bill felt that it was severely unfair for taxpayer dollars to pay for college education for the incarcerated when hardworking citizens were struggling to come up with tuition money for their children. Yet, funding for prison education through Pell Grants had been going on since 1965 with the passage of the Higher Education Act. This law preceded former President Lyndon Johnson's Safe Streets Act of 1968 that increased federal money to local and state police. For a while in the late '60s, the idea of rehabilitation through education seemed to coincide with tougher crime laws. Unfortunately, today many people still feel that inmates should not obtain a college degree. This is a prevailing belief despite studies mentioned in the film such as the Rand Corporation's findings that every dollar spent on higher education saves taxpayers $5.
It would be ideal if every state could have a college program like BPI, but this would be a daunting fiscal challenge. As it is, only a select few are accepted. There are only 110 BPI students out of a population of 890 in the men's Eastern Correctional Facility. Not all applied to the program, but you have to wonder what opportunities other inmates will have to better their lives before they are released from prison. At some point, we must forgive as well as rehabilitate. In the larger scheme of things, there is nothing these inmates have done that God will not forgive, and after they have served their time, they deserve to utilize their God-given talents to better themselves. Not having the opportunity to do so will cost us so much more.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.