Acclaimed filmmakers Sarah Botstein and Lynn Novick brought their latest effort, College Behind Bars, to San Quentin for a premierè screening organized through SQ’s Prison University Project (PUP) on Sept. 18.
Shot on location inside several east coast correctional facilities, the documentary examines the struggles and triumphs of incarcerated students participating in the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI)—a college program much like PUP, under which instructors enter prisons daily to teach accredited courses.
“This is a very special audience for us,” Botstein told SQ News before screening the film. “We’re very interested in having conversations with another student body getting their education in prison.”
Novick added, “We’re very much aware of this program and how tightly focused it is on its students—just like BPI. Jody Lewen’s why we came here today.
“Somebody should do a similar film about her and the program here,” said Novick.
Botstein and Novick are partners of renowned documentarian Ken Burns. In July Burns visited San Quentin and previewed his latest PBS special, Country Music. At that time Burns said he’d like the Botstein/Novick project to also be shown here.
Salih Israel and Elitha Smith—both central figures featured in the prison education documentary—came for the screening and participated with Botstein and Novick in a discussion afterward.
“I’m here to represent my brother,” Smith said to a packed PUP classroom. The documentary shows her visiting Rodney Spivey-Jones throughout his journey of achieving a bachelor’s degree while incarcerated.
“He’s all I have left,” Smith says in the film. “Those short visits—four to five hours long—every single word matters because it extends for months until the next visit.”
A U.S. Army veteran and West Point graduate, Smith visited Spivey-Jones in between her deployments to Afghanistan. In the film, Spivey-Jones spoke about the ever-present danger of terrorist explosive devices and how that menace underscored the value of their time together.
“The film shows so many incarcerated people doing amazing things—inside and upon release,” Smith told the classroom. “It gives me hope that when my brother gets out this might be him.”
Starting at about 3:15 p.m., the preview included a 45-minute excerpt from the documentary. A corrections officer interrupted the ensuing Q&A presentation around 4 p.m. to conduct the mandatory statewide prisoner headcount.
“I did 20 years of counts,” Israel told the audience as everyone waited quietly while the count proceeded. “I know what it’s like to be in a place where you can’t be heard.”
Recently paroled, Israel graduated through BPI and now works for that same organization, Botstein, Novick, Smith and Israel traveled the country previewing the film segment at different venues in 15 cities.
Previews are planned at New York City’s iconic Apollo Theater and the National Black Caucus. The team also went inside Indiana Women’s Prison with the film.
SQ was the second correctional institution to view the film. “We try and get into facilities wherever we go and do screenings like this,” said Novick.
Botstein and Novick took their cameras inside three different BPI sponsored facilities in making the film. They spent more than four years filming classes, interviewing incarcerated students and BPI faculty, celebrating graduations and detailing families’ reactions.
Possibly best known for their epic documentary The Vietnam War, Botstein and Novick were immersed in that production when Novick got invited into a BPI class as a guest lecturer in 2012.
“As filmmakers, we already know that there’s an infinite number of stories out there that need to be told,” said Novick. “Right away, I saw for myself these really amaz- ing students and their amazing stories.
“Being a guest teacher, I experienced some incredibly nuanced and sophisticated conversations. Speaking with Sarah, we knew someone had to make this film.”
Once Vietnam finished production, Botstein and Novick turned their eyes back to BPI.
“Through her connections teaching, Lynn was able to get permission from the corrections people and Bard University,” said Botstein.
“When we first started filming,” added Novick. “It was just on a wing and a prayer— and a dollar.”
A powerful moment in the film captures student Tamika Graham’s mother and her expressed displeasure at how her daughter is somehow being rewarded for her crimes with a taxpayer-paid college education.
“I didn’t know the program was privately funded,” said Graham’s mother, Sonya, on film. “All I know is my daughter got a free diploma.”
Julia Louria, a BPI representative who came for the SQ screening, described how the program is actually funded. “It’s 80% privately funded, overwhelmingly by individuals and also foundations,” said Louria.
“There’s such an unfairness around the huge costs of college right now,” said Novick. “Everyone should have access to a college education—inside or out of prison.
“Of course, this film touches on the importance of prison reform—those politics are actually part of the story.”
BPI founder Max Kenner is shown in the film immersing himself within the incarcerated population and actively working to motivate correctional institutions to recognize the rehabilitative benefits of offering their prisoners higher education.
“The way Max came in and got BPI off and running—that stuff only happens because people like him take the time to actually start engaging with incarcerated individuals,” said Israel.
Elitha Smith spoke to SQ News on her way off the yard about her brother and how education affected him.
“I definitely saw, from the moment he went in, a difference,” she said. “I think my brother was a little bit arrogant before. He was always well spoken, but he didn’t understand how to really use his words. Incarceration didn’t help him.
“BPI immediately changed him. Now he’s more pensive— he listens more than he speaks. He asks more questions than he answers and considers others’ points of view.
“His life’s been catapulted, and I just pray to God he’s released in the spring of 2021.”
Rather than continue on the tour of scheduled screening events with the production team, Smith said she would be flying back East. She already had plans to visit her brother the next Saturday.