Discourse and action regarding prison reform in the U.S. is arduous but necessary—it’s the looming force that this country must reckon with. And no group is more greatly affected by incarceration in this country than Black people. According to the NAACP, African Americans constitute nearly one million of the 2.3 million incarcerated people in the U.S., and are incarcerated nearly six times the rates of Whites. These are staggering numbers that extend far beyond prison cells and into our communities, uprooting families, disenfranchising ex-prisoners reentering society, and ultimately stunting opportunity to thrive in a country that boasts of equal opportunity for all citizens.
On prison reform, President Obama once remarked, “We have more work to do when more young Black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America.” And while some strides have been made in prison reform, such as “banning the box” on job applications and reinstating Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students, there is still much work to be done.
Some of that work can be found inside of prisons, through transformative experiences that sustain life for those who have spent years incarcerated. The channel for this transformation is film. Storytelling facilitates empathy and affirms our own narratives and existence. It can also give hope, a critical emotion for those facing life in prison. Creating this environment is exactly what the Tribeca Film Institute’s Community Screening Series has done for many incarcerated students in New York State.
The series—which is a partnership between John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program and the Tribeca Film Institute—is designed to increase the intellectual and cultural life of prisons in New York State and reignite a passion for education. The screenings are currently held at both Otisville Correctional Facility and Shawangunk Correctional Facility, and funded by donors including the Ford Foundation and Teagle Foundation.
The program screens films, documentaries and educational features in the prisons, and trains a group of incarcerated men (most of whom are serving life) to engage in discussion and activity after the screenings.
Those involved in making the films also visit the prisons to screen their work. These artists include the directors of Nas: Time Is Illmatic, The Crash Reel and Life & Debt. Rapper Pras screened his unreleased documentary Sweet Mickey for President and hip-hop artist Rhymefest presented his as-yet-unreleased documentary, In My Father’s House. For many participants in the program, the screenings have deepened their desire to learn.
“Tribeca Film Institute’s Community Screening Series has allowed us to create a safe space in prison to discuss issues—as they relate to being community ready—on deeper levels of thought, feeling and experience,” said student Charles “Chas” Ransom. “It’s a type of social exchange generally reserved for college, which offers the rare opportunity to be connected to the aggregate human condition and our humanity,”
Using education as a foundation and catalyst for personal development in prisons can empower the incarcerated, as well as produce skilled, working professionals upon their release. The idea that those incarcerated can transition into colleges and thrive upon release is evident in Prison-to-College Pipeline program, founded by academic director Dr. Baz Dreisinger. Dreisinger is a professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her forthcoming book, Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World, explores various prison models in nine countries.
“Prisons should be a place of emotional, intellectual engagement, and what better vehicle than film for promoting exactly this sort of engagement with selves, each other and issues of the world?” asks Dreisinger. “In many ways, the program is also a pipeline to the pipeline, galvanizing interest in higher education and intellectual discourse among incarcerated individuals who may not have realized how powerful this discourse is and how adept they are at it.” For her, the learning goes both ways.
“The program is also about exposing individuals in the film world to the community behind bars in a profoundly humanizing way,” she continues.
One9, director of Nas: Time Is Illmatic, has seen firsthand how the screening series can promote education and connection. “We’ve opened up the Tribeca Film Festival with Nas: Time Is Illmatic at the infamous Beacon Theater in New York in 2014 and have been showing the film around the globe for nearly two years after,” he says. “Out of all the screenings, my most impactful memory was the screening we had at Otisville Prison in upstate New York. To see and hear how the inmates processed and dissected the issues in the film showed me the power of how film can be used to rehabilitate through communal discussions. I left there inspired, wanting to make more films that addressed issues in the community.”
The screening series also creates an environment for engagement that defies the myths of prison culture, and gives a voice to many who have been disenfranchised most of their lives. As a result, students are not only passionately engaging in dialogue, but also redefining themselves through education.
“There is a tremendous disconnect between what the mainstream media perpetuates about prison culture and reality. And that reality is that there are thriving communities of men in prison who have educated themselves and are motivated to create educational spaces that foster critical thinking, community and hope,” says Vee Bravo, vice president of education at the Tribeca Film Institute.
Prison education’s benefits extend far beyond just reducing recidivism. It can create a generation of educated, empowered citizens.
“Out of the 25 years I’ve been incarcerated and been involved in programs, this community screening series is one of the most healing, inspiring and motivational programs I’ve ever had the opportunity to facilitate. I am indebted to this process of change,” said program participant Moses El-Sun White.
Kristin Braswell is a travel writer based in Brooklyn. She is the founder of Crush Global, a boutique travel service agency that will launch this year. You can follow her adventures around the world on Instagram at @crushglobal.