'College Behind Bars' Makes Case For Allowing Inmates To Get College Educations In Prison

Download Audio
Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) students conjugate Spanish verbs at Eastern New York Correctional Facility. (Courtesy Skiff Mountain Films)
Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) students conjugate Spanish verbs at Eastern New York Correctional Facility. (Courtesy Skiff Mountain Films)

A new documentary, "College Behind Bars," explores what happens when a college education is provided to people who are incarcerated.

We speak to Patriots Safety Devin McCourty about how the film relates to his work off the field as a governing member of the NFL Players Coalition, an athlete-led organization that advocates for racial and social justice.

We also talk to filmmaker Lynn Novick, as well as Sebastian Yoon, who earned his associate's and bachelor's degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative. Yoon is currently a program specialist for Open Society Foundations.

Interview Highlights

McCourty on why the film was eye-opening

"I was blown away by the individuals that took part in the program — not only just took part in it, but excelled. We watched a little bit of a young man saying he would study around 2 or 3 a.m., because that's when he felt like he was his best, when everyone else was asleep. He would study to prepare and get ready for class the next day, so I thought that was great to see them in a true human light, just like we see the different individuals that go to school and try to become a better part of society.

"We send people away to jails and prisons to be locked away and tell them they're no good to society, but when you watch this film, you see the improvements they make — obviously from the education standpoint, but just as people. They walk out rehabilitated and ready to make a difference, and I hope when people watch this film, they can see not just a person thrown in prison, but a person's story come to light and how they choose to make a difference, and how they choose to better themselves. And I think we all can learn from that because we all go through mistakes in life and we all try to get better from them."

Yoon on why he applied to the program, and what motivated him to complete it

"I was 21 years old and I was having conversation with my friends who were on the outside, and they were in college and they would talk to me about GPA and their courses while they were in the visiting room with me. And I would feel totally lost. And I would say, you know, I'm supposed to be out there going to college with you guys. And here I am sitting in prison just waiting for the day to end so that I could see the next. And this was going to be a repetitive thing until I got released, 12-and-a-half years later.

"Going to prison at the age of 16 was very difficult and I struggled to find a reason to continue to live in prison. I spent most of my days just staring at the ceiling, thinking about what life would be like upon being released. Everything seemed so bleak and I wanted to put color in the world and I found it through education, the professors, the books. And despite being in such a dark place where I was dehumanized, I found purpose and I found life."

Novick on the parts of prison she didn't show in the documentary

"Among many things I didn't know was the sense of the isolation and loneliness in prison. And, you know, the stereotypes are that it's violent and scary and dangerous but actually, the dehumanizing that happens from the second you're involved in the criminal justice system is magnified and magnified. I was very surprised to learn from the acting commissioner of the Department of Corrections in New York, Anthony Annucci, he said [his] biggest problem is suicide in prison. That's a huge problem, and that speaks to the lack of hope that Sebastian's referring to. So trying to represent that, I think that was really important to just try — how do you show loneliness? How do you show alienation, and disappointment, and all of that? Just trying to get that feeling across, I'm not sure we could succeed, but we definitely tried to do that in contrast to what the BPI students are experiencing."

This article was originally published on November 25, 2019.

This segment aired on November 26, 2019.

Headshot of Paris Alston

Paris Alston Host, Consider This
Paris Alston was WBUR's host of the Consider This podcast and a former producer for Radio Boston.


Headshot of Tiziana Dearing

Tiziana Dearing Host, Radio Boston
Tiziana Dearing is the host of Radio Boston.



More from Radio Boston

Listen Live