Two panels of filmmakers, Georgetown professors and former inmates discussed the rehabilitative power of education in the prison system March 11.
The event featured the public debut of director Lynn Novick’s four-part PBS documentary College Behind Bars, excerpts of which were shown to an audience in Gaston Hall.
Novick, an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, spent six years shooting footage of students and educators in the Bard Prison Initiative, a program launched by Bard College that offers degrees to incarcerated people in the New York state prison system. BPI reorients the goal of incarceration away from punishment and toward rehabilitation, according to Novick.
“This film raises two important questions: What is prison for? And who in our society has access to education?” Novick said. “And over the course of making this film, we gained a deeper understanding of the transformative power of education.”
With over 2.3 million individuals in jails and prisons, the United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, according to a March 2017 news release from the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice policy think tank. The liberal arts education BPI provides aims to lower this recidivism rate and reintegrate inmates into society, according to Novick.
Novick spoke on a panel with Max Kenner, BPI executive director, and Jule Hall, BPI alumnus and program associate for gender, racial and ethnic justice at the Ford Foundation, a charitable institution that seeks to advance human welfare. The panel was moderated by Ken Burns, executive producer of Novick’s documentary.
Programs like BPI have had demonstrable success at reducing re-incarceration rates. Incarcerated individuals who received correctional education were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than those who did not receive education, according to a 2013 study from the RAND Corporation, a policy analysis think tank.
Hall, who completed a BPI undergraduate degree in German studies in 2011, said the philosophers he studied at BPI allowed him to better understand himself.
“Walter Mosley, Friedrich Nietzsche, the social sciences, the philosophies — allow me to understand myself and articulate what is going on inside me,” Hall said. “Those were the tools I used to be able to say, ‘This is me, and this is the world I exist in.’”
Brian Ferguson (COL ’18), a Georgetown graduate who was wrongfully convicted of homicide and spent 11 years in prison, echoed a famous champion of freedom in his assessment of the relationship between being educated and being free.
“One of my heroes, Frederick Douglass, said that education is the key to freedom, and I really believe that,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson spoke on a second panel that was moderated by University President John J. DeGioia. Panelists included Marc Howard, a Georgetown professor of government and law, Shon Hopwood, an associate professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center, and George Chochos, BPI alumnus and assistant director of Georgetown’s Pivot Program, which connects former inmates to classes and internships.
The chance to receive a postsecondary education in prison is limited. Among state prisons, 35 percent offer college level courses, and only six percent of inmates participate in these programs, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, an organization dedicated to improving the U.S. justice system.
Being in prison reduced his life to a statistic, according to Chochos.
“Experiencing reality through metal bars is very difficult. Prisons are constant reminders of your dehumanized status. I wasn’t George Chochos; I was a number,” Chochos said.
Chocos attributed the positive shift in his perception of his role in society to the education he received through BPI.
“Somehow, what I had to say — my scholarship and my voice — could have meaning; somehow my life could add value to society. I could transcend a number,” Chochos said.
The panelists spoke about a number of initiatives Georgetown has started over the last couple of years to help inmates in prison and to help former inmates adjust to life after incarceration.
Howard founded Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, an initiative dedicated to studying and addressing the issue of mass incarceration, in 2016. The Pivot Program, which was established in collaboration with the Prisons and Justice Initiative in November 2018, is a fellowship that helps formerly incarcerated individuals become productive leaders in society. The program offers non-credit-bearing certificates in business and entrepreneurship for formerly incarcerated individuals.
The MORCA-Georgetown paralegal program, a paralegal certification project run by the university and Washington, D.C.’s mayor’s office of returning citizen affairs, began in October 2018. Additionally, the Georgetown Prison Scholars program, which launched in January 2018, offers courses and lectures at D.C. jails.
In 2015, former President Barack Obama’s administration announced a pilot program to give Pell Grants, government-funded scholarships for college education, to 12,000 incarcerated U.S. citizens. Pell Grants had been unavailable to inmates since the 1994 Higher Education Act.
However, the government-sponsored initiative is insufficient in addressing the scale of the problem, according to Kenner.
“In America we suffer from a real cynicism about the role of education itself,” Kenner said. “So when people look at education or college in prison, they’re looking at a person that’s a problem because they committed a crime, or a problem that’s a set of institutions because they’re very expensive to the taxpayer.”