Justice in America Episode 29: Schools in Prison
Josie Duffy Rice and co-host Derecka Purnell are joined by Dyjuan Tatro and Wesley Caines to talk about education in prisons.
On this episode of Justice in America, Josie Duffy Rice and her co-host Derecka Purnell talk about education in prisons. They’ll discuss the impact of having access to education, the dire lack of available programming, and what happened to prison education after the 1994 crime bill. They’re joined by Dyjuan Tatro and Wesley Caines, alumni of the Bard Prison Initiative. The Bard Prison Initiative is a college program offered through Bard College in six New York State prisons. It’s also the subject of a critically acclaimed new documentary series on PBS, called College Behind Bars.
Dyjuan Tatro’s Guest Book recommendation: Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair by Danielle Sered
Wes Caines’ Guest Book recommendation: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
Additional Resources copy and links:
To watch College Behind Bars, find out more at PBS. You can also watch it on Netflix.
More information about BPI can be found here.
The Prison Policy Initiative has a wealth of resources on education in prisons.
For more information about programs that currently exist, check out the Prison Studies Project, which can be found here.
Justice in America is available on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Sticher, GooglePlay Music, Spotify, and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Facebook and Twitter.
Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Wes Caines: The prison system found ways to punish prisoners by removing all of the things that had been recognized as being transformative and rehabilitative; things that lead themselves to having a culture of progress and learning, in prisons.
Dyjuan Tatro:It is about punishment. It is about disciplining people. It is about voter suppression. It is about marginalizing people. It has never, never has been about redemption or rehabilitation.
Josie Duffy Rice: Hi I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Derecka Purnell: And I’m Derecka Purnell.
Josie: 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: 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: We opened the show with a clip from our guests Wesley Caines and Dyjuan Tatro. Wes is the Chief of Staff at the Bronx Defenders and an alum of the Bard Prison Initiative or BPI and Dyjaun works at the Bard Prison Initiative as their Government Affairs Officer and he’s also an alumnus of the program.
Derecka: Last week, we talked to Judith Browne Dianis about the school to prison pipeline. This week, we’re still talking about schools and prisons, but we’re looking at something slightly different — education in prison. What does it mean to get an education in prison, specifically a college education? What educational opportunities are available to people incarcerated and do they have an impact?
Josie: As we mentioned just a few minutes ago, this week we had the good fortune of talking to Dyjuan Tatro and Wesley Caines. Dyjuan and Wesley are both formerly incarcerated, and are two of the students featured in the recent documentary, College Behind Bars, which explores the impact of the Bard Prison Initiative. You can actually find College Behind Bars on Netflix now as well as PBS so we recommend checking it out.
Derecka: We also got to talk to Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, the Director and Producer of College Behind Bars.
Josie: Sarah and Lynn are just incredible filmmakers and they joined us in the studio earlier this year to talk about their experiences making a documentary in prisons across New York state. Here’s a clip from our conversation.
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: The 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: Yeah this is Lynn. 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.
Derecka: Their full interview is also available as a bonus this week. So please make sure to also check that out.
Josie: Yeah we had a lot of really great conversations.
Derecka: I know.
Josie: So I highly recommend listening to all of them. All the interviews we do on this show I think are always interesting and we have been fortunate to have some really great guests. This one was especially great, we recorded in New York, and our producer, Florence, kept telling us we had to wrap it up, but I think for the first time ever I defied Florence and it went long and we want you to hear the whole thing. So we’re going to keep the first part of this episode fairly short today, which means we’re going to skip the word of the day and move right into talking about education in prisons.
Derecka: And, as always, we’ll start with some background. As far back as the 1780s, there has been some form of education in prison. That’s when a man named William Rogers started educating people locked up at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia. We don’t know as much as we’d like to know about Rogers, but we do know he was a clergyman, and that his main interest was religious education. We also know that when he started teaching at the jail, the warden was so concerned that the people in there would riot, that he required two armed guards to attend the classes. He also put a loaded cannon, of all things, next to the pulpit where Rogers held class, and pointed the cannon directly at the students.
Josie: It’s really really an outrageous story, the idea of just pointing a cannon at students in class, but it really does indicate a conflict we’ve seen throughout history when it comes to educating people who are incarcerated. There’s a very pervasive idea that the more they know, the more dangerous they are and I think we see that literally today which we will get to in just a second.
Derecka: A few decades later, in the 1820s, a couple of missionaries went around to prisons in multiple states and distributed bibles to the prisoners, which they’d use to help the prisoners read. In 1822, you see the first state law dealing with education for the incarcerated, a New York law that stated that it was, in fact, legal to give a bible to each prisoner.
Josie: Over the next few decades, education in prison becomes a little more common. If you fast forward 50 years from that first state law to 1876, you get to the point where the Elmira Reformatory is built. A man named Zebulon Brockway, I love that name Zebulon, is named the first superintendent of this quote-unquote “progressive” reformatory. And Brockway is known, I don’t know is known is the right word, it’s not like we’re talking about Zebulon Brockway—
Derecka: (Laughs) He’s out here in the streets.
Josie: Right, right. But he has been called the “father of prison reform” because he built this reformatory. He was apparently interested in education that went beyond just basic reading or learning the Bible, he wanted to offer classes in stuff like ethics, religion, vocational training, he wanted extracurricular activities, like a prison newspaper, and a prison band, and athletic leagues. So he kind of introduced this idea that you could go beyond just the Bible when you were educating people who are incarcerated.
Derecka: Unfortunately, though, Brockway also used sadistic methods of discipline. To even use the word sadistic is a bit scary.
Derecka: Though he said his institution was focused on rehabilitation, violence and abuse at the facility was common, and Elmira looked better on paper than in practice. In practice, those in prison there had to do forced labor, and were often refused medical care, were starved by Brockway and other authorities, and were subject to rampant sexual abuse.
Josie: So eventually, there was an investigation and it showed he was responsible for this violence and he resigned. But over the 25 years that he served as superintendent, he was really influential, and Elmira sort of served as influence for over twenty prisons and 12 states over the next 25 years.
Derecka: So let’s jump forward another half century. In that time, there have been some efforts made around education in jails and prisons, including a slight expansion of prison libraries, and slightly more focus on the education of women. Then, around the 1940s, there starts to be more focus on providing people in prison with a college education. In the early 1950s, it finally happens.
Josie: In 1953, the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, starts offering courses for college credit. And this in itself is a big deal, the mere idea that anybody in prison can have access to college education. Then, about a decade later, in 1965, Congress passed the Higher Education Act, which allowed people, including those in prison, to apply for financial aid in the form of Pell Grants to attend college.
Derecka: I am just so fascinated with this timeline, I mean, as early back as the 1700s we know that during that time it was illegal to teach black people who are enslaved how to read. And then you fast forward and you have the abolition of slavery and the Reconstruction period and in the south, the racial demographics of prisons are flipping from white to black. And now, alongside that entire history, we have education expanding in prison, while even black people who are free or formerly enslaved couldn’t read?
Derecka: Yeah so I’m just really curious about even whether this form of education was truly accessible to everyone who was incarcerated. Because it’s incredibly inconsistent, but therein lies our history.
Josie: Yeah and I mean, I think to your point, the answer is it wasn’t, right? You know, it was not just that anybody had access to education, you had to be kind of chosen, you had to be picked, you had to be favored and we know who is favored. And to your point, just about the alignment of time here, we’re talking about a world when prisons become blacker, less and less opportunity exists for people and we know that we’ve done whatever we can to prevent black people in particular from accessing education just historically. We talked about this last week as well. So yeah, I think we would be remiss to not mention the timeline that we’re talking about also as correlating with the Civil War, Reconstruction, like you said, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, so all of this stuff is sort of happening, funny enough, at the same time, which really makes you know, who gets to benefit and who doesn’t.
Derecka: I know, I know. Ironically, the tiny, tiny probably counter example I can even think of is the first time I ever learned about someone accessing libraries in prison was Malcolm X.
Josie: Right. Oh that’s so true. I think that might be my first reference as well.
Derecka: Yeah, it wasn’t until I read his autobiography later in life that I realized that he asked to be transferred to the prison where he was because they had a library. Because the facilities where he was, you know, there wasn’t any opportunity for him. That was my first entry point. So yeah, like you said, the Civil Rights Act, the civil rights movement, our civil rights leaders, like all these things are happening around the same time. Just a few years later, there’s political education, prisons are printing newspapers and education in prison, it just has a very, very, very interesting parallel timeline to all the things that are happening in society.
Derecka: So with the introduction of the Higher Education Act, this changes everything, because now not only can people who are incarcerated access libraries, in some cases not all cases, but now there’s the possibility of a college education not only being available but affordable. When Congress passes this law in 1965, just 12 institutions offered degree programs to people who were incarcerated but then it increases steadily over the next few decades. Ten years later, that number was over 230. By 1982, 350 institutions offered programs and 91 percent of prison systems offered some sort of post-secondary college education. By 1990, over 750 higher education institutions offered programs.
Josie: Now, it’s important to note that it definitely wasn’t a completely ideal system. Not everyone serving time was eligible for Pell grants, first of all, people on death row or serving life sentences weren’t eligible to use Pell grants to access higher education. In 1988, eligibility was narrowed even more, when, as part of the Anti Drug Abuse Act, which was a major part of the war on drugs, Congress decided to deny Pell grants to anyone who had been convicted of possessing or trafficking drugs. So this is classic war on drugs policy, right?
Josie: If you’ve ever possessed drugs, you can’t go to college.
Derecka: Oh, well, let’s be clear, if you ever possess drugs, and were caught, because there’s plenty of people who possess drugs all throughout college.
Josie: Right, exactly. So this is classic war on drugs policy but it is still better than nothing in that there were still people in prison who could access Pell grants and there was still a period where the opportunities were expanding.
Derecka: As you were just giving the timeline, I also, again, just am so grateful for people who were even excluded from the mainstream introduction of education and prison, because it didn’t mean that their learning stopped or their production stopped, right? So if you are on death row, for example, you were probably excluded from these opportunities but Mumia Abu-Jamal was still literally writing books called Life on Death Row. So even people who were incarcerated still found a way to learn and be in communication and produce newspapers and books in a cage. It’s just phenomenal.
Josie: Yeah, I think it is really important to point out that education in prisons is not just limited to, can you access an official college education. People who are incarcerated have always worked really hard to find ways to continue their own education to produce their own writing to produce their own art. But this is just, what we’re talking about is a pretty specific thing, right? Can you actually enroll in a college program while you’re incarcerated?
Derecka: Exactly. And so, now, boom, the 1990s hit. The early 1990s are a precarious time for incarceration in America. So what are some things that make you think of the early nineties?
Josie: Yeah, I mean, we know what was happening, the prosecutors are getting more power. Prisons and jails are filling up. We’re leading into the crime bill. The rhetoric is about super predators. The rhetoric is about gangs—
Derecka: Crack babies and welfare.
Josie: Right and the racism is just out of control and it’s bipartisan. It’s both parties wanting to crack down on quote-unquote “criminals,” it’s both parties talking about the degenerates and wanting to pull away opportunity from people.
Derecka: Yes, it’s both parties. And so unfortunately, you know, in 1991, the governor of Massachusetts makes this speech where he says, and this is a direct quote, “We’ve got to stop giving a free college education to prison inmates, or else the people who cannot afford to go to college are going to start committing crimes so they can get sent to prison to get a free education.”
Josie: It’s such an absurd thing to say and it also is such a reminder that people who make the laws that send people into prison have no idea what prison is like. They just don’t because if you think that anybody would go out and commit crimes, just so they can get to prison, just so they could maybe get an education. You are not in reality.
Derecka: Yes. Or let’s even humor them. Think about the social conditions that you must be living in where you would consider that because the pipeline to college is easier through prison than through your own school.
Josie: Isn’t that an indictment of the world we live in?
Derecka: Yes, the logic that this governor is using is an indictment against a system, not against people. It’s so frustrating.
Josie: And notice what the solution is for him, right? It’s to remove opportunity. It’s not to make access to education easier. It’s not to make it possible to go to college if you’re not in prison. It’s actually to make it harder for those people versus doing his job and making it better for everybody. Soon after that, the media really starts to take on this narrative about education in prisons being a bad thing. 60 Minutes runs a segment, Dateline runs a segment and they are basically just repeating these absurd ideas that the governor espoused, others are really starting to pick up. They claim that this is taking money away from middle class families who need it. They claim that it is unfair to crime victims for people to access education in prison, and then they also do this thing where they say that prisons are actually taking advantage of the program and stealing the money for their own uses. And again, instead of concluding that if prisons are stealing the money we need to monitor it better, we need to make sure that prisons are not actually violating the law, the conclusion they draw, it’s just that okay, we should just get rid of education altogether, right?
Derecka: Of course, this was all just scare tactics. These students weren’t taking money away from anyone. That’s not how Pell grants work, there isn’t just one pot of money that people in prison were stealing from those not in prison. The amount of money they were using was a tiny fraction of Pell grants. Of the $5.3 billion awarded in Pell grants in 1993, about $34 million were awarded to those people who were incarcerated at the time. That’s less than one tenth of one percent. [< .1 percent]
Josie: And it wasn’t a ton of money per person, either. The annual Pell grant awarded per inmate was less than $1,300. And the money is given to education providers, it’s not a check that you give to people in prison to pay for their educational expenses. It’s money given to the institution to make sure that they have the resources to actually provide that education.
Derecka: Well, I mean, they also could just pay for college to be free for everyone.
Josie: Exactly. That would fix this whole damn thing. Right exactly.
Derecka: Yes. They would have avoided this whole headache.
Derecka: Anyway, I digress. Ultimately, though, their fundamental argument went beyond just the false claims and scare tactics. It was much crueler. Electeds basically were saying that education was wasted on these people. One representative from Virginia, Bart Gordon, wrote an op-ed in USA Today, where he said, and this is a quote, “Just because one blind hog may occasionally find an acorn does not mean many other blind hogs will. The same principle applies to giving Federal Pell grants to prisoners. Certainly there is an occasional success story, but when virtually every prisoner in America is eligible for Pell grants, national priorities and taxpayers lose.”
Josie: They’re really saying the quiet part out loud. They’re basically saying, ‘You guys don’t deserve this,’ which is what they meant all along.
Derecka: Yeah, it’s like, you can’t have the logic both ways. You can’t hold up a success story as proof that racism doesn’t exist or that anyone can make it in America, and then shut down like, ‘Oh, that’s just a success story. and we can’t fund people who want to get education.’ It’s like you can’t, you got to choose bro. You can’t do both.
Josie: Exactly, exactly. So basically there’s all this pushback coming and there are some people in Congress who want to keep Pell grants, but not enough and not enough people willing to fight for it. Both parties, by the way, were really bad on this. The Democrats and the Republicans are both sponsoring legislation to just end these Pell grants for people incarcerated entirely. And in the end, as part of the horrible 1994 crime bill, overnight, college education for people incarcerated is destroyed nationwide. Max Kenner, who started the Bard Prison Initiative, and we’ll actually be talking to him as a part of our episode next week, he has talked a lot about the devastating impact this 1994 bill had. He says that in April of 1994, in New York state alone, there were 70 post-secondary prison programs for people incarcerated and four months later, just four months later, it had gone from 70 programs to just four programs.
Derecka: Just I mean, today, approximately 41 percent of people who are incarcerated do not hold a high school diploma. Those who do have a high school credential often have the equivalent of a GED, since GED programs are often still available to people inside. In 2016, only about 35 percent of state prisons have any college-level courses, and these programs are only available to 6 percent of individuals who are incarcerated nationwide. And guess who they’re available to — the people who can afford them.
Josie: So again, I mean, we talked about this last week, Derecka, but I mean, of course, it’s about race, of course, this is about who’s in prison and it’s also just about class. We already know that outside of prison college is for the people who can afford it, right? But if you’re inside prison, you can’t take out a loan, right? It literally only matters if you have the money to access higher education and that is the only way you have the opportunity to do that.
Derecka: No, it’s terrible. It’s a class issue, race issue, also a gendered and ability issue. What is interesting, there’s been a move towards gender responsive prisons, because there is this idea that women just need softer, more humane treatment than masculine men, but it’s actually sexist towards men to come up with these gender responsive prisons instead of saying everyone should be either out of prisons and or treated, you know, humanely until they leave. It’s like, well, how can we make sure that education in one institution looks like this and it looks differently in institutions that are serving men. And then what about all the students who are interested in learning and cannot see, cannot hear?
Josie: Or don’t have basic abilities to read, you know, have maybe never had any sort of education?
Derecka: Yes, they have no access to demand that their needs are met within prisons and prisons are even causing those conditions, the neglect of prisons create additional health, physical, emotional within people who are incarcerated, that makes it a barrier to their learning. So on top of not being able to afford it, people who are incarcerated are having to figure out how to navigate all of the ways that the prison’s impact them.
Josie: Yep. And I think another thing here, we’re talking about higher education specifically today, in part because of the conversation you’re gonna hear us have in just a second with Dyjuan and Wes, but the ways, I really liked what you said earlier about Malcolm X, and the ways that we think about education in prisons, some of that’s just your family members sending you books or your friends sending you books, right? And in places like prison, a lot of stuff is censored, a lot of stuff is inaccessible. You can’t have a hardcover book. When my brother was incarcerated a couple of years ago, I sent him all the Harry Potter’s because I thought that was like a good way to pass some time and also because I wanted him to finally understand what I’ve been talking about all these years and they wouldn’t give them to him because they were hardcovers and then I sent him the paperback versions, but they were in like a hardcover set. You had to remove them from the box and wouldn’t give them to them. And we were talking about prison libraries earlier, right? There are all of these ways that prisons could facilitate intellectual curiosity, access to information, personal education and they often do whatever they can to not do that.
Derecka: Well, yeah. I mean, I would imagine it has something to do, especially with the censorship, you know, I’ve heard Paul Butler’s book Chokehold was recently banned. We know The New Jim Crow has been banned. So any books that educate people incarcerated about the criminal legal system and the racist, classist, gender, all these aspects of it, is a threat to the institution, they view it as a threat because then you enlighten people on the inside. Yeah so it’s so so frustrating how it’s been repressed, all forms of education have been repressed.
Josie: Right. You know, one thing I think worth talking about is what does education in prisons matter? And I think it’s really important to point out that it does have a positive, the statistics imply that it has a really positive impact on people in prison, on people serving time and that, you know, all the stats that people like to use, it reduces recidivism, etcetera. That’s part of what education does and I definitely don’t want to downplay the importance of education because it is extremely important but I also don’t want to imply that because you get an education in prison, prison is drastically more bearable, right? Or that it fixes the fact that prisons are essentially torture chambers, and that they are not providing sort of the intellectual, physical and mental emotional necessities that people need.
Josie: We’ll talk about this further with our guests, Wesley Caines, the Chief of Staff at the Bronx Defenders, and Dyjuan Tatro the Government Affairs Officer for the Bard Prison Initiative. Both are alumni of the Bard Prison Initiative and they are also featured heavily in the recent documentary College Behind Bars, which again you can find now on Netflix and PBS. Stay tuned.
Josie: So we’re here today with Dyjuan Tatro, the Government Affairs Officer at the Bard Prison Initiative, and Wesley Caines, who is the Chief of Staff at Bronx Defenders. They’re both alumni of the Bard Prison Initiative program. Thank you guys so much for joining us.
Wesley Caines: Thank you for having us.
Dyjuan Tatro: Yes. Good morning.
Josie: I had this great experience a couple months ago where we were all in Atlanta together and seeing clips of the film. It was especially special for me because my whole family came, my parents, my sister, and it stuck with me, I mean, I had been thinking about it since so I’m really glad you guys are here to join us.
Wesley Caines: Really great to be here.
Josie: So can you guys give us a little bit of background about why you decided to apply to the Bard Prison Initiative program? What about it did you find interesting, did you think that was worth your time?
Dyjuan Tatro: This is Dyjuan. I’m the first person in my family ever to go to college and I was in prison and had never really thought I would ever go to college and this was 2007. I was in Five Points Correctional Facility and I was sitting in my cell watching TV one night and 60 Minutes came on and they had a segment on the Bard Prison Initiative. And the men, I believe Wes was one of them in that segment, something about that just really inspired me. Other black men like me in prison doing this really, really amazing program made me think that I could do it. And so I decided that I was going to get in. Easier said than done. It took me six years of kind of gaming the prison bureaucracy to get from where I was to where Bard was, and got into the college in 2013 and that moment forever changed the trajectory of my life.
Josie: I thought you could talk a little bit about you, what you’re taking on gaming the system for six years to get into this program. What does that mean?
Dyjuan Tatro: So the way that the prison system works in New York State and what Wes was saying is that we had college in the state, in this country in a really, really robust way. So there used to be a thing called the academic transfer, where you could ask to go somewhere for the purpose of going to college. So as Pell was taken away and TAP was taken away in New York State, they took out that transfer system. And so the way that the transfer system works in New York now is essentially kind of you get lucky, you ask to go to Eastern, but you end up at Coxsackie or Sullivan and I ended up in Coxsackie and Sullivan, and bounced around the state for about six years trying to get to Eastern. So, you know, the state, the bureaucracy doesn’t have a respect for kind of your aspirations. They figure like if you’re there, you’re lucky enough to go to college very good for you. If you’re not, so what?
Wesley Caines: Yeah, this is Wes. For me, I came to BPI in a slightly different way. I had previously been enrolled in college before going to prison. Prison interrupted my college education outside and when I went in, at the time when I went in, it was 1990 and the Pell grant still was able to be accessed by people in prison. So there were college programs in almost every New York State Prison as it was across the country in other state prisons. Eventually, though, after a year enrolled in college on the Pell system, Pell was rescinded for people incarcerated, which resulted in the college programs leaving literally overnight. For the next three or four years, I was fortunate enough to be in a facility with a superintendent who was someone who did not come up through the typical pathways of a prison superintendent, meaning that he was not a security guard, which then moved up the ranks. He had been an educator, he was a teacher. So he had a different relationship with education and really believed that education was a pathway to rehabilitation and transformation. So he challenged myself and several of the other men who had varying degrees of college access, some of whom had matriculated and had degrees, graduate degrees to really continue to come up with our own courses that we can offer to younger men who are in the prisons with us. It was in this space that Max Kenner, the founder of BPI, and his classmates as undergrads at Bard College, came into the facility. They came in, their stated reason was they felt that to not have a quality education as they were getting on campus was an injustice. They felt that within minutes of the campus, there were these monstrosities which just disrupted the landscape of beautiful upstate New York, and that they were people there who they could possibly help to achieve some educational attainment. I believe that they thought that they would come in and maybe assist people with GED studies in that regard but what they found was a culture of learning, and one that made it possible for this collaboration to take place between Max and the men who were in the prison, which then eventually led to the BPI program being founded and here we are today.
Derecka: Okay, what were you studying before you said prison interrupted your college experience?
Wesley Caines: I wanted to go into finance and banking and perhaps lawyering. So I studied criminal justice before I was incarcerated.
Derecka: Wow. So I’m curious about which classes or which professors you all found most interesting or you were most excited about?
Dyjuan Tatro: Or most scared of.
Derecka: Or most scared of.
Wesley Caines: Yeah, there’s no such thing in Bard College as an easy class, everything is tough, and it makes it extremely rewarding to begin a course that’s seemingly overwhelming and then at the end of the semester, literally conquering a subject matter. For myself personally, I am a history nerd so all things history has always been my attraction. So I would say the courses that most resonated with me were the history courses.
Dyjuan Tatro: So this is Dyjuan and I would just say that, you know, there’s a lot of really, really great professors who teach for BPI and they come from all over the country and sometimes all over the world to teach into this program. I think one of my most profound learning experiences was being in the classroom with Professor Craig Wilder, who holds the Chair of History at MIT, who would drive every day from Boston all the way to upstate New York to teach his class, which was at that time, the Irish in America. And I remember sitting in the classroom and I actually had to get up and walk out because it was very, very emotional to see such an articulate African American man in front of the class, in total command of American history. And it was really, really amazing. And anyone who knows who Craig Wilder is, knows that he’s amazing. So it was instances like that in the program that were not only profound for me as a student, but were also profound for me as an individual.
Derecka: Yeah, Professor Wilder, he was talking about Dubois’ double consciousness and related it to Irish double consciousness and resisting oppression. So in the documentary, I remember listening to James Kim talk about failing a drug test, and how once he failed that drug test the opportunity to be in the classroom was taken from him because he was transferred out of Eastern, right? And once he was transferred, he said it took about six years for him to get back into the program. So I was just curious about, you know, if you all experienced or if you have other stories of people who experienced this opportunity being used against them as a way of like punishment, the opportunity of being in a classroom learning studying, suddenly being removed as a result of, like you said, bureaucracy and just the institution.
Wesley Caines: This is Wes. From the instance that the BPI program came into Eastern Correctional Facility, we all understood, we being the prisoners, whether we were in the program or not, we all understood the importance of its success and we also understood that it was an opportunity that to the individual, we have to really guard with being hyper vigilant around anything that we would do or say or how we would even engage with staff, once we had gotten into the program, for example, I was in the first cohort of admitted people into the program. There were 16 of us, I believe, within a couple of years, we were down to 12 and then ultimately, by the time we had our first graduation, I think that number had dropped to 10. And in almost every instance, it had been because an individual had suffered from substance use disorder, and as opposed to recognizing it as a disorder in the same way our society criminalizes addiction, the prison system punishes addiction in the same way, so the thing that can help you to transform and rehabilitate and could possibly help you to understand your addiction in a way that would allow you to take care of it actually then punishes you and take away that rehabilitative thing from you. So it’s something that, as the years has gone on, and each year’s new admitted students have understood the importance that not only is this a personal journey of growth and development for yourself, but that you had a responsibility to those men and women who would come after you in the program, because the system responds quite punitively to any form of, you know, digressing from the past that they believe that you have this opportunity that you’re not allowed to be fallible.
Dyjuan Tatro: And Derecka, I just want to add that, you know, we must give huge credit to the Bard Prison Initiative and Bard College in relation to this type of issue that the college really has a profound respect for the individual and understands that individual people, especially in the prison context, may have a substance abuse disorder in the college and no way holds that against you, right? You are a student in Bard College, you are there based upon your collegiality, you are there based upon your academic performance. The college has no interest in your substance abuse disorder other than helping you in whatever way it can and just by being there and treating you as a human being. And so when we lose students, in James Kim’s case for four or five, six years, they’re still Bard students, whether they’re in Attica, whether they’re in Clinton, and we wait for them to come back. And this happens, I wouldn’t say a lot, but it happens often enough that it is something that, you know, we are all aware of in the college and when someone comes back, we’re happy to see that person back and James Kim is one of our best and always has been one of our best students. And so what we see in prison like this culture, to punish people. To send someone away into the box for smoking marijuana, or having, you know, a pill problem, or whatever it may be, is really not conducive to that person’s rehabilitation. How do you get better in the box? Like, that doesn’t work. And you know, Bard College has really, really pushed against and resisted that culture of punishment and the results speak for themselves, there are students come into the program with addiction problems, and by the time they have their degrees, they have found some way to make sense of that disorder and they come out of this educational experience for the better. The prison system, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. It often does things that exacerbates their problems.
Josie: So on that same point, it’s not just addiction that can get someone removed from the program or kicked out of the prison. What are other things — for people who haven’t seen the documentary or you don’t know about this — what are other ways in which this program is taken from people by the prison as a way of punishing them?
Dyjuan Tatro: Yeah, so it’s actually pretty simple. Everything that Bard does in the prison context is in person seminar style learning. We don’t do anything over the internet, don’t do anything through correspondence. So if our students can’t show up for class, they literally can’t partake in this education. And so the prison doesn’t have the power to kick someone out of Bard College but what the prison can do is restrict that person’s ability to come to class. So even if that person has a drug abuse problem, something as simple as a keyblock can have an impact on someone’s education and the things that people get keyblocked for in New York State are often very, very trivial. So again, the state has the proclivity to punish, to try to discipline where actually the more effective thing would be to just let that person go to class.
Wesley Caines: And for your listeners, this is Wes, for your listeners who don’t understand the jargon of a keyblock, so in New York State prisons, there are two primary forms of sentencing for infractions so to speak. So if someone gets an infraction, there’s an adjudication process within the prison, which is staffed and facilitated by the prison staff. So there’s no independence, there’s no due process.
Josie: You don’t get a lawyer.
Wesley Caines: There’s none of that. So things that can get you infractions could be as simple as having too many books. If you’re not in a college program, there’s a certain amount of books that you can have. If you are in a college program, then they will increase the number of books you can have, if you go beyond those books, you can get an infraction. There’s a certain amount of cigarettes that you’re allowed to have and if you have a carton more than that, or a pack more than that, and an officer wants to write you up for having excessive tobacco items, he or she can. At this adjudication process, the adjudication officer has a few options. They can find you not guilty and you go on about your prison days, they can find you guilty, and then once they find you guilty, they will impose a financial surcharge of $5. They can impose time served because once you get an infraction, what happens is you’re confined to your sleeping space. After the adjudication, that sanction could then be ‘Okay, you have gotten time served’ in a way that someone who has pre-trial detention may take a plea and the plea results in a guilty plea, but then they get to go home. So that’s a time served sentence. But then you can also have a sentence of keyblock, which means confinement to your living space for a certain period of time, typically up to 30 days. And that’s not isolation. There are still men and women around you who live in proximity to your living space. And then the most severe sanction is solitary confinement, which means a removal from your living space, and stripped of personal possessions and placed in solitary confinement for a period of time, anywhere from 15 days to years. There are people in New York State who have been in solitary confinement literally for years, and you’re isolated. The only people you have contact with, if you do not get visits, are prison guards.
Josie: And you often don’t get visits?
Wesley Caines: Most people in New York State prisons and probably most prisons don’t get visits.
Derecka: Yeah, I was thinking, I was talking to Josie earlier and I was telling her about Eddie Conway who was in prison for 44 years, former Black Panther, got out about five or six years ago and, you know, he was explaining to me that when he was in prison, they were organized for better conditions and privileges. You know, they organized so that the staff will be more diverse. He said, you know, the optics of having all black prisoners and all white guards, it was just too remnant of like slavery. They organized to have better access and free phone calls, and they ended up winning that, they organized and they got access to television. And what the institution, and to your point was anytime there was an infraction, or some dispute between prisoners and people incarcerated and guards, they would just use all the things they worked hard for, they organized for against them. So what ended up happening was that when they actually needed other types of improved conditions, people were then afraid to ask for it or to organize or to demand better treatment because they didn’t want to lose what they already gained. I’m just curious if you guys, you know, experienced any of that?
Dyjuan Tatro: You know Derecka, I think all of that is true but something I want to highlight there, is that all the important programming in prison today are programs that were developed by incarcerated individuals, prisons have not and have failed to be places of redemption or rehabilitation. When we talk about ASAP, the Department of Corrections didn’t come up with substance abuse treatment, they co-opted that and usually from groups that incarcerated individuals were having on their own, right? The AVP program here in New York State—
Derecka: The what program?
Dyjuan Tatro: AVP, which means Alternative to Violence Program, again, there’s another bit of programming that was developed by incarcerated individuals. And then what we see is the institution co-opts the forms of treatment and makes them mandatory. And then starts to discipline and punish people around treatment remedies that they have come up with on their own. You know, when we talk about Bard College and college in prison, and as Wes highlighted, this is something that was put together in a collaboration by undergraduates at Bard College and incarcerated individuals again. So I just want to highlight that prison, it is about punishment, it is about disciplining people, it is about voter suppression and it is about marginalizing people. It never, never has been about redemption or rehabilitation. And that is why I think people find College Behind Bars and the film to be so powerful because all of a sudden they have this example of prison being everything they think it should be and we have to constantly remind people that it’s not prison. That’s college.
Dyjuan Tatro: And there’s a difference.
Wesley Caines: Dyjuan is spot on with how the most progressive programs found their way into New York State prisons. The most seminal moment in American prison culture happened in 1973 with the Attica riot. There was a platform that the men in Attica had put together around the conditions of the prison. Subsequent to the Attica riot, many of their asks were granted and over the next 10 or so years, what we saw was, prisons became places where college proliferated, more progressive programs came in, there was free prison buses that brought people from urban areas around the state, particularly New York, to rural areas where the prisons were located so people can be connected to their family and their communities. But then what we also saw is that with the rise of mass incarceration, and this dynamic that you are describing, that Mr. Conway spoke to, is that the prison system found ways to punish prisoners by just removing all of the things that had been recognized as being transformative and rehabilitative, things that lend themselves to having a culture of progress and learning in prisons. So now you look at New York State prison system, you will find that many of the things that had been pioneered by prisoners, and that which came out of the Attica riot are no longer in existence. And the tragedy of that is because we choose to lock up young people and at the time that most are arrested there’s this historical disconnect, there are many in the prison system who don’t realize how different prison was pre 1973 and how it was transformed post 1973 and then how the regression has been happening. So it’s almost as if they don’t understand that there is a betterness that could happen and that’s why the BPI program and other college programs that exist in New York state are so important, because it connects people to that history and it allows for pathways for people to be civically engaged and civically whole in ways that are not destructive, even before they step foot back into free society.
Dyjuan Tatro: And I just add Derecka, you know, whenever I hear someone say to me is like, ‘Well, if this is such a great program, why don’t we make it mandatory?’ And that scares me, right? Because again, that is this instance, this assumption that the prison, that that institution knows how to do education. And it doesn’t. What would happen is that so you make it mandatory, now, the prison system has a mechanism again for punishing people, ‘Oh, you didn’t go to class, we can keyblock you,’ ‘Oh, you didn’t finish your degree, you’re not getting out early,’ so on and so forth. And so it was very important, we’re talking about college in prison and we’re talking about scaling this thing and, you know, there’s legislation in Congress to restore Pell, that we make sure that colleges remain independent within the prison space. Because quite frankly, the prison institution has zero credibility, has very little credibility in society, has zero credibility amongst individuals that are confined to that space.
Derecka: That’s so powerful the mandatory nature, making things mandatory is carceral logic that we see over and over again, across institutions, even with rehabilitation. We see it in the foster care system, we see drug courts, if you don’t get rehabilitated at times you’re gonna lose custody of your children.
Josie: And why aren’t you grateful for this because it’s, you know, it’s this paternalism sort of taking away, I mean, it’s just another example of removing people’s freewill even if it is ostensibly for a good program.
Derecka: Yeah. Or is it just another mechanism of control? It’s a very, very powerful point.
Josie: Yeah. So one thing you guys both have these moments in the documentary. One where Dyjuan you say, ‘I didn’t come here to go to college and if I had my choice. This is not necessarily where I would be going to college.’ And Wes you talk about the two different systems of education, one for people who rule and one for everybody else and it’s interesting like watching the documentary I was reminded of when I went to college and how many people I went to college with had had functionally college education since kindergarten, especially people in New York, right? You go to the fancy private schools in New York or LA or Chicago or wherever I think big cities in particular, you have this access to this intense critical thinking education where you’re reading Shakespeare in sixth grade and when I went to college, I was like, I have didn’t have this at all. And I wonder for you all, how the BPI program made you reflect on your education pre BPI? What does it highlight about the failures of the education system pre college to think about not only how rigorous and intense and beneficial the actual classes were, but some people are getting that since they can walk, right? Just interesting to kind of—
Wesley Caines: Yeah, I mean, this is Wes, it definitely makes you reflect on this idea of expectations and teaching to expectations. You provide children with all sorts of stimulus, all sorts of opportunity, you expose them to things, if you legitimately think that they can be anything, you want to show them the wonder of the world. But if you see a group of people who first of all, you may or may not even identify them as children. Because they’re black and brown, and black and brown people are born adults, and we hold them accountable for adult things, you know, whether they’re six years old or 60 years old, you don’t think that you have to really provide them with the same stimuli, you don’t think you have to expose them to the same wonder of the world because the world is not for them. And I think that sounds harsh, but when you strip away and look at policies and practices, that’s in essence what we’re saying, ‘We will not educate certain classes of people in this way because that’s really just like setting them up for something that they could never achieve and we’ll never have a space available to them to achieve it.’
Josie: Mm hmm.
Wesley Caines: And then there are other children who we’re like, ‘Makes a whole lot of sense for you to be doing this in the sixth grade. Like, this is your world and we’re going to situate you in such a way that you can really maximize who you are in your world.’ And at the end of the day, it’s that simple. It’s that simple that we look at certain children, and really locate them in the world the way we think they should be and then we just build policies and practices over time to reflect that.
Dyjuan Tatro: You know, whenever I’m asked a question like this, I think of the French philosopher in social science Pierre Bourdieu and Bourdieu makes this argument, especially in relation to the educational system in America, that the educational system here reinforces inequality, and that it is geared towards reproducing society in the sense of the status quo. So we send poor people to poor schools, and then they’re poor. We send rich people to rich schools and give them the best, most privileged, stimulating education and they go on to run the world. And in my experience, you know, that has been true in my life. I was never engaged as a child. In school, I was bored, I would go to school, and the work was easy and I was never challenged, I would do all the work and then I would skip school for the rest of the week, and largely go get in trouble somewhere. And it wasn’t until I got into Bard College, and I say this in the film, and the professors started teaching me how smart I was that I gained a real entrance in not only my sense of self, but also what it meant to think critically what it meant to read Shakespeare. I often say that I learned how to read, not in elementary school, where they taught me how to spell and what different words meant and so on so forth, but I learned how to read sitting in prison reading James Baldwin, right? Because there was something happening in The Fire Next Time that I had never been able to appreciate or been asked to think about and so when we talk about education in America, and Wes says this all the time, we’re always having these coded conversations about race, about inequity. And what Bard College does, what the Bard Prison Initiative does is that it turns all of our assumptions on its head, right? Not only are people who come from some of the most poverty stricken communities with the worst schools capable of academic greatness, but it is the people with the most potential, some of the people with the most potential are also in prison, are incarcerated. And what do we do about that? And how can education play a role in this space? And historically speaking, the people who have made the most of a little bit of education are those who have had the least access. So this is true of African Americans after the Civil War, they made great strides given just a little access to education. This is true of Eastern European immigrants who were locked out of the Ivy League’s in the first half of the 20th century and some of the best colleges were right here in New York, right? Small community colleges and so we know that education is transformative. We know that it is formative. Anybody who’s been to college knows that and yet, we persist, not to give people access to the type of education that we know that works. There was always this other option, right? As Max Kenner would say, when he began, you know, on this journey to found the Bard Prison Initiative, people wanted him to be everything other than a college. That culture of low expectations that Wes was talking about, ‘Well, why don’t you give them vocational training? Why don’t you give them this other thing? Why don’t you give them a certificate program?’ And for me, what that bespeaks is this mindset in America where we treat education as a commodity, and as a scarce one, and as a privilege.
Derecka: So what you’re saying oh my gosh, it resonates with me so much. You know, I went to law school thinking that I was going to be an education lawyer and I studied desegregation programs from across the country. And if you’ve been following this phenomenon in the last like 10 years, one thing that we’ve seen is the rise in prosecutions, particularly of black parents, who are trying to send their children to school districts where they don’t live. So they’re being punished and prosecuted and it’s much easier to send someone across district lines, across state lines if you’re incarcerating them. So it’s easier to send people across those borders to put them in prison and to pay for them to stay there, right? Then it is to send someone across a district in hopes of pursuing a better education and we’re just hearing you talk about the way that we treat it as a commodity versus a right and versus a privilege is just, yeah, it’s just frustrating to say the least.
Josie: Yeah, it’s interesting too, there’s a scene in the documentary with the mother of the woman who’s just upset basically, that her daughter is getting this education. And it’s interesting what we consider investment and what we don’t. You could look at BPI through the same kind of framework that people talk about tax cuts or anything else and say, we are actually investing in people, this is how you like, give people opportunity so they become — what do people say? — part of society or whatever, which is not language I love, but it’s funny because it’s not reflective, they only like that investment language sometimes. Other times what they’re explicitly saying, whether you’re five and in kindergarten, or forty and in prison, is ‘We don’t want to invest in you,’ to your point Wes, ‘You’re not worth investing in because there will be no return on that investment,’ right?
Wesley Caines: Exactly.
Dyjuan Tatro: And I think it’s really, really profound in criminal justice space, you know, we’re having this big movement here in America and there’s all this stuff changing and people are changing legislation, and we’re doing different types of things but what we see is a real reluctance to invest in people. What the Bard Prison Initiative does is invest in people and that bothers people, right? People make this argument, ‘Well, we need to be doing all these other XYZ things to the system, we’ll make changes, investments at the systemic level,’ but when we’re talking about investing in individuals particularly and directly impacted individuals or individuals of color all of a sudden there’s, like you just highlighted Josie, that reluctance in this idea that there’s going to be no return on that investment. So the assumption is that these people are worthless.
Dyjuan Tatro: And that is the culture by and large and, you know, That’s what we, with this film, are in the process of changing the narrative and pushing back against.
Derecka: Yeah, I think what’s fascinating is just how language of the market is used generally to describe people, even, for example, the college debate, there is this whole thing about, you know, don’t major in basket weaving or don’t major in Art History, it is not going to get you a job, regardless of whether it’s personally fulfilling in a short time that we have on Earth, right? Between the womb and the tomb.
Josie: Right, right.
Derecka: It’s just like, if you don’t do anything, don’t go out there, don’t get a liberal arts education, don’t study the humanities, because you’re not going to be able to make use of that unless you’re going to go on to graduate school. And so college is, interestingly, under attack because there’s a severe underinvestment and lack of appreciation around traditional arts and liberal studies education.
Josie: And learning.
Derecka: Learning generally.
Josie: Just the value of learning to learn.
Josie: Like whether or not it turns into anything.
Wesley Caines: That doesn’t fly. Learning doesn’t fly.
Josie: Right, right.
Wesley Caines: Like our cultural framing usually follows one of two paths. We frame things in militaristic ways, or we frame things in economic ways. That’s what we do. We have war on crime, war on drugs, militaristic. You know, study things that you can use, that’s useful, like economics, like the only value that we can contribute to the economic system, not to the human person—
Derecka: And it’s still not working because our economy is still messed up.
Wesley Caines: Well, the economy’s not messed up for everyone.
Josie: Not for everyone. Right, right, right.
Derecka: Well, that’s what makes it messed up.
Wesley Caines: Yeah, exactly. I mean, when you think about it, like the vast majority of Americans of college years and have adult years have zero access to college, the number of people who have undergraduate degrees I think it’s like less than 30 percent who could possibly have? You know what I mean? Of eligible people. So it’s like, it’s not something we invest in, I mean, we want you to learn so that you can contribute and if you can’t contribute, then we’ll find another way for you to contribute that doesn’t require us investing in just you learning to learn.
Derecka: And that’s Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s point, right? Her writing about prisons and the prison boom, she says, ‘Look, there is this surplus of land, surplus of labor, surplus of people who don’t have access to jobs and so their contribution is now being locked up and that’s going to fund people being able to have jobs in like rural prison economies.’ That’s exactly her point.
Dyjuan Tatro: I think, you know, one of the interesting things that people always make kind of this economic argument around education and college in prison, and the politics of the 1994 crime bill and the stripping of Pell eligibility people in prison, is that in that crime bill, they stripped away $45 million a year in funding to Pell program for people in prison. In that same bill, they allocated over $7 billion to prison construction, enough money to fund college in prison for over 200 years. And they went out, as Derecka you’re just saying, is that they built prisons in rural economies where farming was failing. And we’ve shipped people out of inner city America, out into the rural countryside, and locked them up, one set of poor people, to create jobs for another set of poor people and now we are reckoning with that economically. We gerrymandered political districts around that, where we’re counting people from New York City in the census in upstate New York, it’s insane.
Dyjuan Tatro: And so there’s an economics to this and a politics of this that the American public fail to appreciate because what they’re told is important here is that they’re safer when more and more people are in prison, which is not true. Or that their tax dollars are better spent when we’re building prisons instead of educating people in prison, which is not true either.
Josie: You know, that’s kind of related — I don’t want to be too unfair — it’s a little related to something that happened in January on Twitter. A funder, a pretty big funder in the criminal justice space on Twitter kind of responded to College Behind Bars, and essentially said ‘College Behind Bars feels good, it’s a good documentary, but the evidence isn’t there. There’s not enough evidence to prove that college in prison does anything really.’ And what was most interesting I thought — interesting, I’m using that word loosely — about what he said was he said, ‘Look, if we’re gonna fund things, first of all, it needs to be more prison guards, more prison staff’ and then he would make sure that locks on the doors work and he was like, ‘But people won’t make documentaries about that, because that’s not inspiring.’ And he was referencing the violence that has happened at Parchman Correctional Facility over the past, I mean, decades, but that has kind of come to light during 2020. And he’s like, ‘Is what Parchman needs, is their number one need a prison education?’ It’s an interesting conversation, because that is the way that people talk about this, right? ‘It’s nice, but it’s not necessary.’ ‘It’s nice, but it’s not proven.’ And I wonder what your response would be to that?
Wesley Caines: The question that I would ask is if those functional prisons which he wants to create, were housing himself and his family members and his class of people, would he feel the same way around access to education in prison? Would he feel the same way about, you know, making a prison more functional? Would he feel the same way of having his humanity stripped, and his family members’ humanity stripped? See, for me, you’re not gonna set the playing field and expect me to play not only on your field, but by your rules. The fact of the matter is, we suffer from a lack of imagination, or the people who have imagination about how we can have a system of personal accountability for behaviors that as a society we have chosen to punish and how we could also hold a system that’s, frankly, historically and currently institutionally racist, accountable, right? So we often talk about personal responsibility and the other side to that coin though, most people, people who never look at the structural responsibility of the system that we have in place. For creating individual behavior. It’s a scale and it has to be balanced.
Dyjuan Tatro: I just like to highlight that the only relationship between violence and prison in education is a positive one. Any place where you have college in prison has less violence than a place where it doesn’t exist. I did 12 years in prison, right? I have friends in prison I speak to all the time I have two brothers, they’ve both been to prison. I have never, ever had someone in prison say to me, ‘What we need are more guards and more locks,’ quite the opposite, right? When I speak to a friend in prison and they’re sitting in Clinton, they say to me, ‘Yo, bro, what I’m trying to do is get to Eastern so I can get in a Bard’. They want more access to education. And the idea is that if we have these things, if we have more guards, if we have more locks, that prisons are going to be safer. And a lot of violence happening in prison is because that institution is a violent institution. The institution is a violent place. It does violence to people, whether someone is being assaulted by someone else, or whether they’re being placed in solitary confinement for a year, two years, three years, five years, right? And so it scares me when we talk about more prison guards, that we talk about more locks, more cells, effectively making an argument for better prisons, not only because of the violence that it’s going to perpetuate, but also because the fact that it doesn’t work. We tried that. We spent the last 40 years throwing money and investing into this system, and it fails over and over again. The recidivism rate nationally is over 60 percent. We have more jails and prisons in this country than we do public colleges and universities and you’re arguing for more of this over education?
Derecka: This conversation around this particular funder reminds me of a conversation that happened last September in New York City around the #CLOSERikers and No New Jails campaigns and you have, the mayor’s plan to build five new jails against, you know, activists and organizers who are saying ‘No, we don’t need new jails because it concretizes the carceral state.’ So I would love to hear whether philanthropy or the carceral state conversation generally is really committed to interrogating, what does it look like to transform harm and not just rely on punishment and incarceration?
Josie: I would even expand that a little and ask like all of this, like when you’re talking about the Bard Prison Initiative, when you think about any of these things that are run by people who don’t have to do it, right? Who are benevolent, giving the resources.
Dyjuan Tatro: I think you know, we are right to question the role of billionaires and funders and private foundations in this space, and the ways in which they perpetuate and sometimes reinforce the system. I often worry about, you know, some of the best, largest, oldest criminal justice organizations on the ground who are treating homelessness and treating addiction and treating mental health and sheltering people who are coming out of prison, in which ways that type of work puts a bandaid on structural inequality, and how it allows the system to operate more smoothly in the face of such inequity. There’s reforms that happen at the legislative level that again, reinforce the system rather than undermining it. And so it’s very worrying. And so you have these people who want to do this very important work but are beholden to a system and a status quo that may not ultimately have the same goals or the same ends, right?
Dyjuan Tatro: It may just be about maintaining the status quo, rather than actually overturning it. When we look at prison reform right now, it should be no question, I’m always looking at it from the advantage that we have all these pressing things going on in society, we have problems with poverty, problems with homelessness, global warming on the horizon, and we don’t want to raise taxes so lawmakers are looking at their budgets and saying, where’s the money gonna come from? Oh, we’re spending $80 billion a year on prison. That has to change so we can take that money and allocate it to put band aids in other places, right.? So I’m also cynical about the whole criminal justice reform movement and think about how those reforms, again, reinforce inequality and perpetuate the status quo on a systemic level.
Derecka: So what do we do? What’s the move?
Dyjuan Tatro: I think one of the great things about the Bard Prison Initiative, again, is the investment in people, in putting people like myself and Wes, we earned an education, got an education, are coming back into the world and working to change things. So it’s really, really important and this is not an argument that, you know, only educated people could do that, I think it is really, really important to put directly impacted people in positions of power to make sure that we always have room at the table. It’s really, really important to put people who not only have the experience, but have the will to make sure that real reform is happening. And so with respect to #CLOSERikers, there’s a lot of people and strong people, formerly impacted people and incarcerated people working on that campaign, trying to ensure that the communities that have been most impacted by mass incarceration are taken into consideration as that platform is unrolled. But we’re always going to be in a precarious position in relation to this until we start to change how power works in this society. I like to see more formerly incarcerated people running for office, more women running for office, more African Americans running for office, right? We need more African American teachers, we need more African American professors and so there’s a lot of things that seem sometimes small, but I think that are really, really important to ensuring that we’re moving forward but at the same time making progress.
Josie: Yep. So this has been great. Dyjuan and Wes, thank you guys so much for joining us. We’re so grateful that you guys took the time out, we could talk to you for a couple more days probably. We really appreciate you guys coming out. Thank you for joining us on Justice in America.
Wesley Caines: Thank you for having me.
Dyjuan Tatro: Thank you.
Josie: Thank you so so much to our guests, Wesley Caines and Dyjuan Tatro, such a pleasure to speak with them. For show notes about the show and additional resources please visit TheAppeal.org and don’t forget to check out Wes and Dyjuan’s book bonus as well. You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts or on The Appeal.org. Thank you Derecka so much for joining me for this series on schools in prisons. You’ve been amazing, this has been wonderful and we’re so grateful that we got to have you on.
Derecka: Of course! Thank you for having me. And thanks to everyone 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. Research assistance by Nawal Arjini. 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.
Dyjuan Tatro and Wes Caines’ Guest Book Recommendations.
Josie: Hi, I’m Josie Duffy Rice and this is the Justice in America book bonus. We’re here with Dyjuan Tatro, he’s the Government Affairs Officer for the Bard Prison Initiative. And Wesley Caines, the Chief of Staff of Bronx Defenders, they’re both alumni of the Bard Prison Initiative program. Can you tell us something you’ve read or watched or enjoyed lately, or really whenever that you think our listeners would benefit from engaging with? Yeah, any thoughts on that? That’s something you’d like to recommend?
Dyjuan Tatro: This is Dyjuan, you know, first and foremost, I want everyone to watch College Behind Bars. Right? That’s a given. And then two, I think one of the books that’s kind of really, I would say that it changed my thinking, but really, really engaged me lately is Danielle Sered’s Until We Reckon, which is inserting and beginning this conversation around violence in the criminal justice space. We’ve been going with the reforms we’re going after what we would say the low hanging fruit, nonviolent offenses, and if we’re really going to tackle mass incarceration, we have to reckon with violence.
Josie: She was also a former Justice in America guest, so. Great, we like that.
Dyjuan Tatro: Amazing.
Wesley Caines: Yeah, Danielle is awesome. This is Wes. I’m gonna go with two books; not my own, but my daughter’s. Her favorite adolescent book was Harry Potter (by J. K. Rowling). And a couple of years ago for Father’s Day, she gave me Outliers (by Malcolm Gladwell). And Harry Potter, I chose that book because my daughter and I have had so many discussions around it. And this idea that there’s so much happening around us, but unless were initiated to see it, it just goes unnoticed to us. And I want to challenge your listeners to think about the things that are happening around them, That they’re not initiated into that they’re not seeing that they’re not observing the pain and oppression of others around them and try to become initiated to do that. And then Malcolm Gladwell’s, Outliers and this book speaks to how it is we elevate people we view as innately gifted, and the book deconstructs the lives of very successful people. And the premise is that there is nothing innately gifted or talented about them. What it was was that they had an interest in a thing and were placed in a position where they had opportunity to practice that thing. It’s premise is that if you do anything with intensity, for 10,000 hours, you will be better at that thing than most people who just have a pedestrian relationship with that thing. So those other people amongst us who we recognize as being super successful in their fields, and we attribute that to various things, but it’s really just about perseverance and practice and doing something that you love and just getting so good at it that to the outside world. They don’t necessarily witness the early work that went into your specialty, and the thing that is now being termed your innate gift.
Josie: Thank you guys so much. And thank you for joining us on Justice in America.
Wesley Caines: Thank you.
Dyjuan Tatro: Thank you for having us.