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How Filmmakers Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein Gained Unprecedented Access for PBS Prison Documentary “College Behind Bars”

Four-part PBS documentary series executive produced by Ken Burns follows prisoners through the Bard Prison Initiative, one of the most rigorous and effective prison education programs in the United States.

College Behind Bars, a four-part documentary film series directed by award-winning filmmaker Lynn Novick, produced by Sarah Botstein, and executive produced by Ken Burns, tells the story of a small group of incarcerated men and women struggling to earn college degrees and turn their lives around in one of the most rigorous and effective prison education programs in the United States — the Bard Prison Initiative.

Shot over four years in maximum and medium security prisons in New York State, the four-hour film, which marks Novick’s solo directorial debut, takes viewers on a stark and intimate journey into one of the most pressing issues of our time — our failure to provide meaningful rehabilitation for the over two million Americans living behind bars. Through the personal stories of the students and their families, the film reveals the transformative power of higher education and puts a human face on America’s criminal justice crisis. It raises questions we urgently need to address: What is prison for? Who has access to educational opportunity? Who among us is capable of academic excellence? How can we have justice without redemption?

“The first hour of Lynn Novick’s four-part documentary series College Behind Bars plays out pretty much how one would expect this story to be told,” writes Jason Gorber in POV Magazine:

“We meet a series of incarcerated individuals in a number of New York State correctional facilities who are enrolled in the Bard Prisoner Initiative. Ostensibly a free college education for those behind bars, BPI is set up for a disparate group of individuals who have traded sweeping floors or laundry duty for book studies. For the first episode, they tell their stories, the history of the programme is explained, and we have a fine if superficial view of this situation.

“It’s in the subsequent three hours that Novick gently and convincingly builds upon this intro to get at the heart of not only the socio-political and law enforcement ramifications of the opportunities for these students, but also manages to deftly tease out the stories of their lives that brought them in conflict with the law. The simple thing would be to create a film series that over-glorifies the situation, brushing aside the complex moral and ethical circumstances revolving around these men and women. Yet by proceeding in a deliberate yet precise way, College Behind Bars builds into something quite extraordinary.”

Broadcast on PBS over two consecutive nights in November, College Behind Bars unfolds without narration through an intimate look at the lives, experiences and words of incarcerated men and women and their families. Working with renowned cinematographers Buddy Squires, ASC, and Nadia Hallgren, Novick and producer Botstein received unprecedented access to film for four years inside maximum and medium security prisons in New York State. The film, edited by Tricia Reidy, ACE, takes viewers on a stark and emotionally intense journey into one of the most pressing issues of our time — our failure to provide meaningful rehabilitation for the millions of Americans living behind bars.

“Lynn Novick’s four-part PBS documentary series College Behind Bars is persuasive and compelling as an argument for prison education reform (and general across-the-board prison reform), but more than that, it’s so humane and emotional that it will probably have you brushing away tears as you’re pondering bigger questions,” writes Daniel Fienberg in his review for The Hollywood Reporter:

“It’s remarkable how quickly College Behind Bars solidifies its emotional bonds to its primary subjects. Over four hours, your heart with break and your hopes will soar for inmates like Jule, the first of the incarcerated students to get to return to a world of freedom he hasn’t experienced since before 9/11; or for Dyjuan, whose brother has been incarcerated at a facility without access to BPI or a comparable program, or for Tamika, whose mother stubbornly rejects the idea that ‘free education’ is a thing that prisoners deserve.”

Novick, in an interview with Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air, says she and longtime collaborator Sarah Botstein focused the series on the transformational power of education, asking what it meant for the participants in the Bard program to be able to get this education while still in prison:

“…As we got to know the students, we began to understand the circumstances of their lives, which, as you say, were complicated, sometimes tragic, often involved exposure to violence and other tragic experiences. And, you know, we came to feel that it was important for them to — and they also felt it was important for them to explain themselves, how they see themselves, where they’ve been, where they are, through the lens of the education that they’ve been getting and their perspectives that have shifted over time. And so the film ends up and their stories end up, you know, raising some really important questions about violence and about harm and incarceration, and what is prison for, and what is the value of education? All these things are intersecting and overlapping.

“And, you know, what we hope is that through these — their very courageous and generous sharing of their stories, we can all have a different kind of conversation than we have had about who is in prison, why people are incarcerated, what our criminal justice system does and doesn’t do to — it’s supposed to be helping people to prepare to come back to society and become productive citizens. We, you know, without quite realizing at the beginning, have ended up exploring this really deep question. And I will say this – when we started the project, sometimes people would say to us, oh, most people in prison will say that they’re innocent and they didn’t do the crime that they’re there for. That was not our experience at all. Everyone that we got to know well took full responsibility for what happened and explained the context in which it happened and how they are reckoning with it today.”

Presented without narration, College Behind Bars allows the Bard program participants to tell their stories entirely in their own voices. The Department of Corrections and Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci granted Novak and Botstein extensive access to New York state prisons while filming the documentary, demonstrating its support for the decade-long program and a commitment to higher education.

Want more? Listen to the full Fresh Air interview with Novick and BPI graduates Sebastian Yoon and Dyjuan Tatro on NPR in the audio player below. (Novick, Botstein and Yoon also spoke with Boston Public Radio back in November; you can listen to that conversation here.)

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