Justice in America Episode 29 Bonus: Interviewing the Creators of College Behind Bars
In this bonus episode, Josie Duffy Rice and her co-host Derecka Purnell talk to Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, the creators of College Behind Bars.
In this bonus episode, Josie Duffy Rice and her co-host Derecka Purnell talk to Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, the creators of College Behind Bars. College Behind Bars, which was directed by Novick and produced by Botstein, is a four-episode documentary series about the Bard Prison Initiative, one of the most innovative and challenging prison education programs in the country. Josie and Derecka talk to Sarah and Lynn about the years they spent making the film, what they learned, and the future of prison education in America.
Sarah Botstein’s Guest Book recommendation: Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, by Ted Conover.
Lynn Novick’s Guest Book recommendation: A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison by Dwayne Betts.
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Josie Duffy Rice: Hi, I’m Josie Duffy rice.
Derecka Purnell: And I’m Derecka Purnell.
Josie Duffy Rice: And this is Justice in America. Each show we discuss a topic in the American criminal justice system, and we try to explain what it is and how it works. Thank you, everyone for joining us today.
Derecka Purnell: You can find us on Twitter at @Justice_Podcast, we’re also on Facebook page at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts, we’d love to hear from you.
Josie Duffy Rice: So we had the pleasure of interviewing two remarkable women Sarah Botstein and Lynn Novick, who made a really incredible documentary called College Behind Bars. We discussed it a lot in our last episode on Schools in Prisons where we spoke with Wesley Caines and Dyjuan Tatro both alumni of the Bard Prison Initiative.
Derecka Purnell: College behind bars is now available on PBS and Netflix, so your “Netflix and Chill” can look radically different than what it was.
Josie Duffy Rice: It really can. It really can.
Derecka Purnell: It’s like more “Netflix and Learn”.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, we’re really upgrading your whole Netflix life right now.
Derecka Purnell: Yes. It’s a four part documentary film series, and it tells the story of a small group of people who are incarcerated and working to earn college degrees and one of the most rigorous and effective prison education programs in the country. The Bart Prison Initiative or BPI.
Josie Duffy Rice: I will tell you all that I had high expectations for this documentary, and I thought it exceeded my expectations. I think it’s beautifully done and really, really such an interesting thing to watch, so I highly recommend it. Sarah and Lynn joined us in a studio earlier this year to talk about the documentary, what it was like to film in a maximum security prison and how this project changed their perspectives on our criminal justice system. Stay tuned to hear more from Sarah and Lynn.
Josie Duffy Rice: We’re here with Sarah Botstein and Lynn Novick, who have made this incredible documentary that we’ve been talking about on our episode about college behind bars, so thank you guys so much for joining us.
Lynn Novick: Our pleasure. Thanks for having us.
Sarah Botstein: Yeah, we’re really excited to be here.
Josie: Can you give us a little bit of background about what made you want to make this documentary, how you guys first had this idea?
Lynn Novick: Yeah, this is Lynn. In 2012, we were invited to give a guest lecture about our film that we made with Ken Burns on the history of prohibition in a classroom inside a maximum security prison as part of the Bard Prison Initiative, and we’d never been inside a maximum security prison, we’d never taught a class in that context and so we thought that would be really amazing opportunity. We went into the class, we brought our clip reel, we showed clips, we spoke with the students about our film, about the history of prohibition and about the craft of documentary, about deep questions of American history and criminal justice. We had the most interesting and sort of sophisticated conversation that we’ve ever had about any film in that classroom. It was truly mind blowing for us. And we walked out of the class and before we’d taken a few steps, we looked at each other and we just said, ‘That was unbelievable what just happened. How did we not know this was happening here? This would be an incredible film to make.’ And we were kind of busy at the moment because we were working on our series about the history of the Vietnam War, we didn’t think we would make it but it just really touched us so deeply. The following year, I had the opportunity to teach in the Bard Prison Initiative myself, and I taught an eight week seminar about documentary and history and Sarah came and taught several classes with me, I brought in other filmmakers and we really got to understand the program in a deeper way, and got to know some of the students. And by the time we were finished with that, in the spring of 2013, we made the commitment to make the film.
Derecka: What were some of your highest hopes for the film?
Sarah Botstein: When we started? That’s a great question. This is Sarah. I think when we started, we knew two things: we wanted to make a film that was about what we were watching or thinking about as the transformative power of education in an unusual landscape or a landscape that people don’t always associate with education, and we wanted to film over time and that was a really fundamental, important goal for us to find students who are starting, students who are halfway through, students who are graduating and kind of show and have the students help us understand the journey of education. I think it was, we’d never made a vérité film. It’s not what we typically do. It was really complicated to make a vérité film in maximum security, medium security prisons in the state. So we didn’t know a lot of what, it was really a journey of discovery in the most true real sense of that idea.
Josie: What’s a vérité film?
Sarah Botstein: So, you’re filming like a fly on the wall as action is happening, you’re not scripting, you’re not coming with really prepared interview questions, your cameras are there, catching action as it’s happening and the actual technical definition of vérité film-
Lynn Novick: Truth, you know, so it’s a term that came about in the 1960s, with the advent of small cameras, and filmmakers that could kind of just be part of the world they were trying to document and it’s a construct, frankly, I mean, you’re making choices and it’s very subjective. What you choose to film, when you choose to film, who you choose to film, what you choose to edit. So it’s not the idea that it’s some kind of truth, it’s a constructed narrative.
Josie: It’s relative.
Lynn Novick: Yes, it’s relative. But, you know, the films we’ve made with Ken Burns, we have a voice of god narration that sort of, you know, structures, the whole thing. And when we’re making films about American history, as we’ve done, you know the story before you start, frankly, we didn’t know really anything except, like Sarah said, this leap of faith that we’re going to get to know some people and we’re going to find out more about them and their journey as it’s happening. So it was terrifying, frankly, and exhilarating creatively, to have this opportunity to just be on this extraordinary journey with a group of truly amazing human beings.
Sarah Botstein: And also just to say and get out of the way, to let them tell their stories and be as tiny a footprint and as far away as possible and to work as closely with the students who became the main subjects of the film as we went. So it was an incredibly collaborative dynamic with them and they were enormously generous not only with their own lives, but I do think over time, I mean, the camera changes everything. You just can’t avoid that. But actually, because we shot over four years, the camera did disappear more, certainly more than the first year we were shooting.
Josie: Right. One of the things I find really fascinating watching it is how much of the prison you see, like you see people’s living areas. I’ve been to a lot of prisons, it’s hard to get in those places. It’s hard to see things. I was just wondering what the process of even getting access and being able to tell this story.
Lynn Novick: Well, we didn’t really know how much access we would be able to get at the beginning and the Department of Corrections approved the idea of the film, because they think that education is important and they wanted to showcase what it can do. But as we worked through the sort of storytelling, we realized that the film we were beginning to shoot was happening mostly on the school floor, and it looked like a regular school kind of. And so for the film to represent the students lives, visually, we had to get outside of the school floor. And so we kept on asking for more and more access over the course of the four years we filmed. And going into the students cells, their personal living space was one of the most extraordinary experiences that we had, and we didn’t take it lightly and neither did they. It required a lot of permission from the department, and then the students themselves had to agree ‘Okay, yes, you can bring your camera into the place, the one place I have, that’s mine,’ more or less in this really dehumanizing environment, and to let us see how they lived and how they organize their space and have them show us around was such a privilege. So we didn’t even ask for that until well into the process. We didn’t know people well enough to even ask that question. But over time, it became clear that we really needed to be able to show, and they wanted people to see how they lived.
Derecka: Did you have to go through any procedures, like procedurally what was it like entering into the prison, especially as you were granted more and more access to the nine classroom spaces?
Sarah Botstein: So we had a fairly similar process all the way along, we worked very, very closely with central office in Albany and then coordinated from central office in Albany with the facilities on the ground and we processed in, I mean, every time you go in, as you know, it’s different. So even if you’re going to the same place with the same crew with all the same gear, the offices are different, the people on staff that day are different, the weather is different, what’s going on in the prison is different. You don’t always have a sense of what that is. So every day was different. But we did go through the same process, which is we had to be extremely careful about how much gear we brought in. We had to be really mindful of how many people we were bringing in and who those people were, be extremely respectful in the space. It’s a really serious thing to be, that much gear and visibility inside a maximum or medium security prison. And as Lynn said, I think we started really quietly on the school floor and over time asked both the students and the department for more and more permissions and worked closely with both the students and the Department of Corrections, always mindful of security, but also mindful of what film we are trying to make.
Derecka: Were you ever turned away, or anyone in your crew?
Lynn Novick: No, no, no, everything was planned ahead, really. So we were never turned away. Sometimes we would get there and there’d be something going on, like Sarah was saying, and then I’d have to wait a few hours to go in for some, you know, something that happened, that kind of thing. So, you know, we obviously just go with the flow.
Sarah Botstein: The Clinton escape happened halfway through our time shooting, which was, you know,
Derecka: The two men.
Sarah Botstein: Yeah. So we actually didn’t shoot for a while around then because I think the permissions were different and the state was trying to just sort out, I mean, things happen and we didn’t shoot that many times a semester, and we shot really long days to be more efficient. So we didn’t go in, we went in fewer times for longer, than more times for less.
Josie: I was going to ask that about the timing. What did it mean, you guys were doing this for years, what does that look like in terms of, is it the only project you’re working on? Is it one of many? I actually know. I know that working with Ken means you’re working on all different stuff at once.
Lynn Novick: Yeah, Ken Burns works on sometimes six or eight or ten projects at a time. We don’t do that. I mean, we were working on this and our history of the Vietnam War, mostly, we started working on another film about Ernest Hemingway toward the end. So it was really just two projects. But it was sort of like two full time jobs even though we structured this project to be longitudinal so that it wouldn’t be a full time job because we already had a full time job. But, you know, we had a lot going on at all times. And we’d never done anything like this so it was sort of reinventing the wheel for ourselves somewhat creatively and just organizationally as well. But we wouldn’t have traded it for anything really.
Sarah Botstein: We had a coordinating producer who became a full producer who was full time after the first year when we realized, okay, this is a real thing, it’s actually happening, we have the money to make the film, which we didn’t really truly have till we were almost done.
Derecka: Wow. Yeah, the reason I asked about how you were able to access the space over and over again, because I noticed that, you know, when I go and visit my clients, as a lawyer, the way that I get into prisons is significantly easier than when I had to go visit members of my family or members of my community. And I just remember the first time I had to go through that process as a non lawyer, even though I was a lawyer, I wasn’t there as a lawyer. I was there as a civilian or whatever people call non lawyers — human being (laughing) — I was there as a visitor and I just watched scores of people get turned away who’ve been coming to those institutions for years to see their family members. And, you know, they were wearing the wrong type of pants or they had the wrong color shirt or a bra strap was showing and so it was the first time on that end of the spectrum where I saw like, wow, you know, I’m used to flashing the bar card and sort of bypassing this and having to go the other way I was just like, wow. So I was just curious if you all experienced any of that.
Lynn Novick: You know, we didn’t personally experience that. But we definitely saw it happen on the course of making the film because we were fortunate to film family visits. And several times some of the family members of the students that we were filming were hassled or had problems, had to go back and get new clothes, or couldn’t wear what they were wearing or didn’t have the right ID, etcetera. Or one of the students came in to meet her mother, and her hair wasn’t right and she had to go through, some problem with the way her hair was arranged that they thought was some, whatever, she had to go back and redo her hair and by the time she came back, you know, she missed part of her visit. So we definitely very much understood the stresses and strains of that even though we didn’t personally go through it as the media coming in. So we sort of had a similar access to what a lawyer would have in that sense. We weren’t searched but we did have very stringent security coming in and out and they gave us very clear rules of how we should be, present ourselves and our gear.
Josie: To your point about making a vérité. One of the things a viewer might take for granted, it’s a level of trust that these men have with you. Especially because you look different than them, you have a different experience, you’re documentary filmmakers, you have different privileges, you know, what are the and I think also the program is largely people of color, black and Hispanic.
Lynn Novick: I think the population mirrors the prison population.
Josie: The prison population, right? So was there a moment where you felt like you went to being trusted or you felt trusted? Do you feel that change over time? Does it ever totally change? You know, what has sort of your relationship been with the students, some of whom, like Wes (Caines), who were in the program 25 years ago, and others who are literally still in the program?
Lynn Novick: We were always deeply aware of, as you said, where we come from and who we are and the privilege that we’ve had, the experiences that we’ve had and never claimed or pretended to understand things we didn’t know about, and just tried to keep a super open mind and not make judgments and just be present, genuinely present, which is what we do for every film. But this is different, especially with the fact that just people being incarcerated, let alone anything else, there’s an imbalance, there’s a disproportionality of, you know, where you are in the world. So we’re just acutely aware of that at every moment and tried to be really direct about it as well with the students, and then hearing from them after we finished the film, they would definitely say they didn’t quite trust us at the beginning. And if I were them, I wouldn’t trust us either — my god, you know, who the hell are we — and they’d seen so many films about prison, and people incarcerated that were so sensationalistic and voyeuristic and stereotypical and dehumanizing and they had no reason to think we would do anything other than that. And so at least having taught in the program, I felt like I had maybe a tiny bit of some kind of credibility that I was coming in having spent some time there, but we had to really earn I think, the trust and it took, I would imagine from where they said, quite a long time, and it’s been really interesting since the film has come out and we’ve been hearing some of the students now talking about what it was like that for them I think they felt like, because we didn’t sit down right away ask them ‘Okay, so tell us about your conviction. Tell us about your childhood.’ You know, we wanted to know what they were studying and what they were interested in majoring in and what they were working on, what their classes were like and what their friends were doing in school. We were really interested in their academic experiences to start with, which we genuinely were, it was really over time that we felt we got to know them well enough to begin to even ask, would it be okay to even talk to you about some of these really sensitive and painful and difficult experiences that you’ve had, and if you don’t want to, we totally understand. And so it was, you know, this is a five year project. So it took a long time.
Sarah Botstein: The only thing I would add to that is that we spent as much, if not more time, with the students and in the classrooms and with their families without the cameras as we did with the cameras. So we really did try to get to know them, spend time with them, not always with the camera, but just one on one, human being to human being and we took that really, really seriously.
Josie: Is that how it always is when you make a documentary film, or is that kind of specific to this or, or is this because it’s not typical? You guys are always working on history.
Lynn Novick: It’s a little bit of both I’d say, you know, if we’re going to interview a famous historian or a famous writer for a project we’re working on, they’re not going to spend time with us to get to know us and they don’t probably need to get to know us. We just need to know what they’re interested in speaking about and some big issue. But our film on the Vietnam War and Second World War, we were spending a lot of time with sort of, quote-unquote “ordinary people” who are not professional talkers, who had life experience that we wanted to capture and so we spend a lot of time with them before we ever turn the camera on.
Sarah Botstein: And I think actually the experience of making the Vietnam War when we were spending a lot of time in Vietnam and getting to know Vietnamese people who both fought with and against us in the war, as well as more traditional American military voices and anti-war voices, while we were shooting this film, shooting that film and spending a lot of time with all sorts of people whose experiences did not mirror or reflect our own and learning from all kinds of really interesting people. So that was a very exciting five years, we felt really lucky.
Josie: You guys are making me feel better about the fact that a book takes a long time, cause I’m like, five years, you guys, making a documentary film is even harder. So we’ll get our books done. We will.
Derecka: I guess. That’s what I hear.
Lynn Novick: Things take time. And I think too, I mean, really this project, when we started, we knew we wanted to have it take a long time for the reasons that we said, it’s such a privilege because when you get to really deeply get involved in something and kind of immersed and really go below the surface and you can’t do that quickly. You just can’t. Your brain, your heart, your soul can’t do that. So I think you should forgive yourselves.
Sarah Botstein: Yeah, exactly.
Josie: Yeah things take time.
Lynn Novick: Yeah. And is worth it. I was just gonna say on the question of trust, I mean, one of the things I remember vividly from working on the film, I think, I don’t remember when it was, but at some point after getting to know Rodney (Spivey-Jones) a little bit, and sort of talking with him about his academic experiences, and I think at some point, we wanted each of the students to tell us a little bit about their childhood just so we could have some context for where that came from. He said, ‘I want to show you something’ and he handed me a folder, and in the folder was sort of an essay he had written about his mother and her mental illness and how she died when he was young. And he said, ‘I don’t ever speak about this.’ And he didn’t want to actually tell me, he just gave me something to read. And I was so overwhelmed in that moment of thinking, okay he’s willing to share this with us in writing. He said he didn’t know if he wanted to talk about it, but he wanted me to know that so we could at least begin to understand sort of what had shaped him. And then, you know, that was many months before he ever sat down to talk about these things. So, you know, it was definitely a two way street.
Sarah Botstein: And you getting to know his sister as well as he ultimately did and our team did and both how enormously close they are and how wildly different their life experiences have been and how it was amazing to be on the road with Elitha (M. Smith) just both to represent her own self and to represent him and I think I certainly learned a lot from that.
Derecka: Yeah, I’ve noticed that sometimes it’s hard when I hear people who are currently incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, talk about where they come from and they talk about the sort of bad choices that they’ve made throughout their life or, you know, ‘I was just caught up with the wrong crowd’ or ‘I decided to do XYZ’ and they have, interestingly, like a critique of mass incarceration and prisons, and then they’re also holding this, like, ‘I just got caught up with the wrong crowd and I was at boarding school, I started skipping,’ we hear some of these stories in the documentary. And I often think about all the people that I know-
Josie: Who skipped school. Who did whatever.
Derecka: Who skipped school, hang out with the wrong crowd, steal cars, break into bars and, you know, use fake ID and hurt people and, interestingly, have the room with a space, even if they were in boarding school, their families had access to tutors and camps and study abroad programs really, really early on. And it’s just, I wonder, as documentarians, I’m curious if there are moments where you know there’s this bigger phenomenon that’s happening in the world and you’re hearing people share their stories, they tell their truths and wanting the impulse to jump in. I know, I sometimes like no, no, no, people mess up all the time and some people mess up and they never come into contact with the criminal legal system. Yeah, I’m just curious about what it’s like, if you, you know, experienced that or navigated that?
Josie: I think it’s a good point because I think that the way people define their lives depends on where they are.
Josie: And so people don’t say, if you’re on Wall Street right now, they’re not like, ‘Well, I was caught up in the wrong crowd and then I went to Harvard, and then I went to-’ what you did wrong doesn’t matter.
Lynn Novick: Retrospectively, you structure the narrative based on where you are.
Josie: Yeah. Totally.
Lynn Novick: Of course. Yes, that’s absolutely true. I wish the students were here to talk about that. Because I think, yeah, they’re kind of caught in this competing narratives in a way, right? Because of the great liberal arts education they were getting, were really beating to deeply understand the social structures and the systemic problems that have actually shaped their lives and not the choices they had made but the situations that they were in, and the limited opportunities that they had. And the huge systemic problems — tragic — that were affecting their lives and their families lives and their communities lives and also limiting their perspectives. You know, I think Giovanni at one point says, ‘I didn’t know anything beyond my block. That’s my world. I didn’t know what it was to be a citizen because I didn’t have the perspective,’ and that the education sort of allowed him to telescope way, way out and see things from 30,000 feet, including himself, in that context. But then there’s also that narrative: ‘I made bad choices.’
Lynn Novick: I think what you’re saying though, there’s this incredible safety net, right? For people who are privileged, that allow all kinds of bad choices and it doesn’t affect the outcome.
Josie: It allows you to rewrite your own history.
Lynn Novick: Indeed.
Derecka: Yes, I know as a viewer I have the impulse to like jump in and say no, no, no, but I’m curious about as documentarians, is there a voice that is coming, so sometimes we see the voice with like the captions or the clips you choose to share of different politicians giving a speech so we are seeing those images, those clips, those quotes up and over against, you know, the stories that are coming from the people who are incarcerated. But yet, I’m curious about whether you had an impulse to sort of be responsive or contextualize, like some things that you were hearing?
Lynn Novick: For myself, I’ll just speak for myself, I think what we wanted to do was to create a space where they could express themselves, like you guys are saying, and, you know, have a voice that, you know, we don’t hear from in our media, culture, etcetera. And then we did have those conversations during the interviews and after and before about all the things we’re talking about. And so it wasn’t happening in a vacuum and there was a lot of back and forth about exactly the issues that we’re saying and in the end, this is sort of what they wanted to just say.
Sarah Botstein: And the politics of education in prison, criminal justice reform, or however we’re now talking about the landscape of criminal justice in this country changed dramatically over the course of us making the film. In 2012, ‘13, ‘14, we wanted to make a film about this college program in prison and people gave us a little bit of money and were kind of interested. By the time BPI beat Harvard, everybody was talking about the crisis of mass incarceration. How does education fit in this space? Is Obama going to reintroduce Pell? A minute later, the right and the left came together in a time when they were really really fractured around some understanding that we have a broken system that’s taken a generation and a lot longer to get to. And so in terms of the clips we chose to put in the film, or the moments of the politics that were relevant to the story we were telling, again, we couldn’t have anticipated that in 2012, ‘13, ‘14, but Cuomo dips his toe in the water in ‘14, Obama does ‘16, BPI beats Harvard in ‘15, like all of that was unexpected and provided us material for the film that we felt was really relevant to the story we were telling and the students’ experiences.
Derecka: Right. In the midst of that, The New Jim Crow drops in like 2012. I guess over the next year, the public consciousness around mass incarceration literally skyrocketed. And so the timing of everything-
Josie: Yeah, the last ten years, I mean since I started law school. It’s just been-
Lynn Novick: It’s a while shift, huge shift, right? Yeah.
Lynn Novick: The one that I wanted to add just because just to close up the really important point Derecka was making, and you Josie, was that almost all of the students that are featured in the film are incarcerated for violent crimes and so this question of, quote-unquote “bad choices and decisions” I think things weigh on them in a way that is very, very serious and that they really wanted a place because the criminal justice system doesn’t afford them that to take responsibility for what happened even in the context of this larger, really deeply dysfunctional, unjust world that we’re in, you know, so there’s like, on the personal level for them, it was really, really important.
Derecka: So I can’t remember his name right now, but he was involved in a shooting
Lynn Novick: Jule (Hall).
Derecka: Yes, Jule, and he was convicted, I think as an accomplice when it was actually futile, right? And so his neighbor, someone he really respected ended up-
Lynn Novick: So there was a gun fight between him and somebody else.
Lynn Novick: And right, so this really tragic, tragic thing happened. He was a teenager, someone came into his neighborhood with a gun, and he went and got another gun and they started shooting at each other and in the crossfire, a neighbor, a woman that he knew, was killed by the other guy.
Derecka: And he was convicted as an accomplice to the killing of this person. And hearing him say, you know, ‘Sometimes I question whether I should even get out, be released’ and when was this? Just last year I remember the governor of Michigan received a very pretty prestigious fellowship offer after it came out that he was one who authorized the switching of the pipes in Flint, Michigan. So we have people who are responsible for the premature death of thousands of people in the city, who are not in a cage struggling and grappling with ‘Wow, do I deserve to like be here? I’m so responsible for the quality of life of all these people’ but instead, are like on tour and getting fellowships and so.
Josie: It’s an interesting point, because it actually does, I feel like people think about people in prison as unapologetic and like irresponsible and unwilling to change when that is just not what we know to be the truth once you actually spend time with people who are serving time, I mean, like that’s all you have time to do is reflect, right? I mean, like, largely.
Lynn Novick: Yeah and just the other night we heard, I think it was Sebastian, was talking about how he wanted to reflect, he wanted to come out of prison and be able to contribute to society, but without the education he got through BPI he didn’t think he would be able to.
Lynn Novick: So it was sort of the intertwining of those two things that made it possible for him personally, to really develop the skills and awareness that he needed to actually do the things he wants to do as a human being.
Josie: You guys could provide an overview just making sure people understand not just how the movie was made, but how the programming works.
Sarah Botstein: You can get more of this from Max (Kenner). I think the majority of the professors in the program are Bard College professors. Bard is about an hour away from Eastern, an hour and 10 minutes from Woodburn, 45 minutes from Taconic, an hour from Coxsackie, whatever. And then there are professors from other institutions mostly on the East Coast who are really interested in teaching in the program. Craig Steven Wilder from MIT, probably the most consistent and he’s in the film and people get to know him. The curriculum also reflects very much the traditional Bard campus curriculum with the exception Dyjuan (Tatro) always likes to say, of, you know, lab science, which they haven’t figured out a way to do inside prison. And the program functions as close to what is happening on Annandale (Annandale-on-Hudson) as possible.
Lynn Novick: The only other thing, since BPI started, and there were hardly any programs after the Clinton Crime Bill removed Pell funding, there are now dozens, if not several hundred programs around the country and small scale programs like BPI, many of them are not degree granting, or fully accredited and don’t do a BA, so the fact that you can get a bachelor’s degree from Bard College by going to this program is really, really important. And that that credential means the same and the faculty are not volunteers. I think that’s also really important. Everyone is paid the way college professors are paid to teach courses in the program.
Sarah Botstein: And it is really, they try to create as much of campus extracurricular lectures come in, they do concerts, they do art exhibits, they really and you know, graduation is the President, the Board of Trustees, you get the same diploma and they are, you know, if you’re ever at a Bard graduation, they’re very, very proud of the program. The students love to tutor and work in BPI once they’re able to, whatever their age or the rules are.
Lynn Novick: It’s really integrated into the college.
Sarah Botstein: So it’s very fundamental to what Max (Kenner) had in mind.
Josie: Yeah, I like the fact that their salary, that this isn’t like, ‘Here I am doing you a favor.’ It’s like you guys are like any other student and any other Professor.
Lynn Novick: Exactly. I think it’s really, really important and the faculty mostly just love teaching in the program. I was thinking about this the other day, one of the professors that’s in the film, he said to me the other day, ‘I’m just addicted to teaching this program. It is the best thing I do, it’s the most exciting teaching that I have. The students are the most interesting. I wouldn’t give it up.’ So they feel very lucky to teach in the program.
Derecka: Has your outlook or ideas or views on the criminal legal system changed since teaching in the program and then making the documentary?
Sarah Botstein: One thing I’ll say about that is, I said this the other night, a really interesting conversation, nothing about my life in 2012 and ‘14, and who I am and how I walk around the world is the same. I feel totally rearranged having made this film and think about my privilege myself, how I exist in the world very, very differently than I did and I feel really fortunate to have made the film. The one other thing that really struck us while we were making the film, and I think began to be a more important part of the national conversation around criminal justice is Danielle Sered in particular, but just sort of restorative justice and how we look at our legal criminal, victim, perpetrator, that landscape and I think I’m optimistic and hope that our country will move, as we try to unpack and unwind all of the mistakes we’ve made, how to put that at the center of moving forward.
Lynn Novick: I guess I’m embarrassed to say that before we started getting involved in this, and before we went into the prison that first time in 2012, I hadn’t given as much thought, personally, I didn’t have proximity, I hadn’t experienced any of the things that we, like Sarah was saying, had the privilege of being part of. And so I care about a lot of issues in our society, income inequality, global warming, I mean, segregation, I mean, I could list a whole lot of things and I don’t think that I put criminal justice really, and access to education at the core of my understanding of what is really, really wrong with our country. And spending time with the students and inside prisons and getting to know the program and just being immersed in this experience has really put that at the center of my understanding of the things that we need to really work on in a deep way. And I’m both optimistic and very depressed about it at the same time. I feel sometimes very hopeful when I hear people on the right talk about the importance of criminal justice reform and I think, wow, that’s kind of amazing. And then I just get really demoralized sometimes when I walk into a prison and I see all the people that are there and the dynamics with the officers and the kind of just, keeps on trucking along. The system has this inertia, momentum of inertia or whatever the, you know, physics are, it’s just, it has a momentum of its own and dismantling it is just going to be such a big project.
Josie: Hopeful and sad.
Sarah Botstein: Yeah.
Josie: You’re in the right place. That’s my day, every day, right? Yeah.
Lynn Novick: Yeah. But I will say working on the film and sharing the film has given me a lot of hope because I think our personal experiences have been transformative for us just selfishly or, you know, in our own small way and we’ve seen responses to the film from all kinds of people who had sort of, you know, ‘Wow, I never thought about that. I didn’t know anyone who was incarcerated. I never thought about these issues. Now I really want to dedicate my life to this.’ I mean, we’ve just, you know it really, so in a way, this question of proximity and telling stories and reaching people can have a deep and long lasting effect. So I’m hopeful.
Sarah Botstein: We want to have a long lasting effect and get into communities that do and don’t have proximity to this.
Lynn Novick: Yeah, we’ve had some amazing experiences screening it in prisons, screening in under resourced inner city schools, on college campuses and, you know, everybody leans in.
Lynn Novick: Everybody.
Josie: Yeah, I was gonna ask what the response has been like, since you all have, you know, it was on PBS. It’s accessible to everyone, you know, like I, during Thanksgiving, we had our family, you know, because my family was there the night they saw it. That was life changing for them, and they hear me talk about some of this stuff all the time. I wonder both from random watchers but also from politicians and lawmakers and people who kind of are in this system or are making decisions, what the response has been like?
Sarah Botstein: The responses have been overwhelmingly positive, we spent a year getting ready for all of the opposition and negative reactions and how we needed to really think about this film from every perspective and where we were going because it is on PBS. And we traveled the country for nearly a year with the students and people very positively reacted to the film and the questions that the film raises and want to get involved.
Lynn Novick: Yeah, I mean, we’re hoping to still reach more people, so it’s actually been streaming free on PBS, and pretty soon it’ll be streaming on we think Netflix and Amazon.
Josie: It is interesting because it is a place where, you know, it’s like someone was just telling me that one of their articles got picked up for a 20/20 piece and it will totally change who engages, right? Because it’s just a different sort of audience.
Derecka: Is there anything do you hope or expect to happen on the political front that could really change anything, your relationship to the documentary?
Lynn Novick: We’re pretty excited because in the last six months, there’s legislation that’s been moving through Congress to restore Pell eligibility for people who are incarcerated, and it has bipartisan support, and there’s more cosponsors coming on every day on the left and the right, Republican and Democrat. And there seems to be a pretty big consensus that we need to do this as a society for many different reasons both morality, justice, economics, to make the broken prison system less broken perhaps, if that’s possible, but without education what are we doing? So if the REAL Act, which is the legislation that would restore Pell eligibility passes, then there will be federal money to bring college to pretty much every prison in America. Very exciting.
Josie: Wow, thank you all so much for joining us Sarah and Lynn, we are so grateful that you joined us on Justice in America, and thanks for coming.
Sarah Botstein: We’re really thrilled to be here. Thank you for having us.
Lynn Novick: We love your show, we listen to it all the time so it’s an honor to be here. Thank you.
Josie: Thank you. And we love College Behind Bars. You can find College Behind Bars streaming on PBS, on Netflix, and Amazon.
Josie: Thank you to our guests, Sarah Botstein and Lynn Novick.
Derecka: College Behind Bars is now available on PBS and Netflix.
Josie: For notes on the show and additional resources, please visit TheAppeal.org.
Derecka: Thanks for listening to Justice in America. I’m Derecka Purnell.
Josie: I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Derecka: You can find us on Twitter at @Justice_Podcast, you can also like our Facebook page at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts.
Josie: Justice in America is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Our conversation with Welsey Caines and Dyjuan Tatro was recorded at Beatstreet NYC, the engineer was Bobb Barito. Thank you so much everyone for listening and we’ll catch you next time.
Sarah Botstein and Lynn Novick’s Book recommendations
Josie: Hi, I’m Josie Duffy Rice and this is the Justice in America book bonus. We are here with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein of College Behind Bars. So we always ask our guests what they are reading, watching, engaging with either lately or ever that you think our listeners would benefit from, or would enjoy or that you would recommend. It’s a very open ended question, but we’d love for you to talk about what maybe has influenced you and that you think would influence other people.
Sarah Botstein: This is Sarah. We were talking about this before the show and thinking about some of the books that really influenced us that we read early on. So that’s a little bit more what I came with and I’ll turn to what I’m reading now, which is a little bit different. But it’s funny to say, but Orange is the New Black had come out just around when we started shooting and we were starting to spend some time in the women’s prison, which we didn’t talk as much about today as we might have as thinking and I actually really enjoyed that book and thought it was enormously helpful in just understanding the landscape of women in prison. And Piper (Chapman) came and did an event with us in San Francisco and was great and just has been, I think, a wonderful spokesperson and advocate. We also said to Lynn, oh, what about Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, by Ted Conover, what she has in her bag, she’s reading right now just about the history of Sing Sing, and how that prison was built and understanding different mechanical pieces of it. I think I talked about Danielle Sered and Until We Reckon which came out as we were going around the country with the film and has really impacted all of us. Read a lot of Ta-Nehisi Coates while we were making this film.
Josie: That’s two people who have been guests on Justice in America. So that’s, that’s good.
Lynn Novick: I’m sure I’m going to hit a few others. When we were starting to think about the film and the idea, looking for memoirs from people who’ve been incarcerated and also had some access to education, and luckily came across Reginald Dwayne Betts’ memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, just really stunning and just opened our eyes in so many ways and have been following his career since then. And his new book of poems Felon is on my bedside table right now and I’m savoring it. It’s really powerful. Jesmyn Ward Sing, Unburied, Sing.
Derecka: I love it.
Josie: It is unbelievable.
Lynn Novick: I could barely stand to read it, but I couldn’t put it down. It was so utterly devastating. I just don’t even have words. And the language is so beautiful for such a devastating story.
Josie: I know. She’s unreal.
Lynn Novick: Yep. A long time ago, I read John Edgar Wideman, many different books by him, but Brother’s Keeper was also really devastating and really insightful and been a huge fan of his work and curious about him as a person, just what he’s been through and who he is and what he carries. And Blood in the Water came out when we’re working on the film, and what an amazing work of research and scholarship from Heather Ann Thompson. She was an advisor on the film, after we read the book, we just begged her to be an advisor, so we got to spend some time with her. She’s a force of nature, too. So the shelf is expanding every day on these topics. So I like fiction, poetry and nonfiction, kind of in a mix.
Sarah Botstein: We tend to trade books back and forth. Right now we’re reading a lot about America and the Holocaust, because we’re doing a project about that. So we’re looking at antisemitism, the KKK, immigration policy, what we didn’t do during the Second World War, how the Germans looked to us for inspiration and practical ideas.
Josie: Wow, thank you guys, so much!
Sarah Botstein: Thank you.
Lynn Novick: Thank you.