Going to College Behind Bars

This highly selective college program isn't at a traditional university — it's at a prison. And the results can be life changing.

Full-time prisoner, part-time student

Each semester, 300 students are enrolled inside 6 New York Prisons by the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) – one of the country’s most rigorous prison education programs. Giovanni Hernandez was one of them. BPI was created in 1999 in response to the nationwide decimation of in-prison college programs. The program is highly selective — only 10-25% of applicants are accepted. Over 4 years, filmmaker Lynn Novick brought cameras into maximum security prisons. Her film, “College Behind Bars,” follows 12 students serving time for serious, often violent offenses.

“We are people who made bad, poor decisions, who are reckoning with those decisions and who are taking advantage of an opportunity that we were presented with and are just trying to do what we can with that, right. Like what's more American than that in some senses, right. I arrived at Eastern Correctional Facility in January of 2010. And when I arrived there, it was the first time that I had ever heard of the Bard Prison Initiative. I had no idea that they were still, you know, a program operating out of Eastern, you know, that provided college courses. And it was actually a friend of mine who sort of, you know, graft the application for me, took me over to the tables and was like, hey, I need you to fill this out. It is balancing two identities, right? You are a prisoner and you are a student,” Giovanni Hernandez tells Brut.

College Behind Bars, the four-part documentary about the transformative power of education, premiered nationwide on PBS in November 25, 2019. College Behind Bars is an intimate look at the lives and experiences of a dozen BPI students and their families that confronts and challenges conventional wisdom about the purpose of both education and incarceration. The recidivism rate for BPI graduates is 4% — compared to averages that run as high as 60%.