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Reflections on a recent visit to Eastern Correctional Facility
[This is a guest post by Zack Carpenter, from the Just Impact team]
I (Zack) recently traveled to Eastern Correctional Facility, one of New York State’s oldest maximum security prisons, with a group of 12 that included philanthropic donors, foundation staffers, a college student and two formerly incarcerated non-profit leaders. The purpose of our trip was to meet and talk with students enrolled in the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program which offers Bard college courses and degrees, taught by college professors, to roughly 300 incarcerated people across the state. The trip was organized and led by One for Justice, which is a coalition of philanthropists, business leaders, and foundations who have made a $100k+ annual commitment to ending mass incarceration.
We traveled by bus in the morning through beautiful upstate New York country roads, passing snowy hills and waterways, until we arrived in Napanoch NY about 2 hours north of Manhattan by car. We were dropped off in the parking lot, full of cars belonging to guards and staff, and I looked up to see an imposing stone building, like a fortress, yet surprisingly attractive at first glance. I learned that the building was constructed in the late 1800s and opened at first as a reformatory for children, but has operated as an adult prison since the 1970s. The entire building is surrounded by multiple layers of fencing, with a 20 foot tall exterior fence, a slightly shorter interior fence with large overlapping spools of razor wire in between, that all looks to be electrified. As we passed through the main gate of the outer fence, one of our hosts told me the prison had recently spent tens of millions of dollars on the updated fencing.
We made it through the exterior gate and walked into the stone building to the front security entrance to the prison. We were told not to bring phones, or any electronics, and that we would not be allowed in if we had phones with us by the time we hit the security gate. One of our party had to run back and put his apple watch on the bus, and was luckily allowed back in. We each presented our IDs, passed through the metal detectors, and were wanded and stamped with an ultraviolet ink, by the 6 or so guards at the front desk.
From there, we were escorted through several other metal gates, each time having to wait for the gate behind us to close before we could pass. We chatted with some of the guards, passed people coming and going to what looked like a lunch break, and smiled and said hello to some of the men incarcerated there who were walking around. Some had janitorial equipment or other tools and looked to be working, others seemed to be waiting around. The mood in these security rooms and hallways was pleasant and calm enough, but it had the familiar tension of a prison visit, where everyone you meet is either a guard or staff member who is there every day but goes home at night, or someone who doesn’t. And you are just visiting for a few hours. One passing guard made the inevitable “watch yourself or we won’t let you leave! haha!” joke to our group. I still haven’t heard that one land.
We were then escorted up to an upper level, where the entire tone changed. We breezed past a welcome desk and entered a hallway with classrooms and a library. This was still definitely a prison but you could feel the energy change - and nothing about what we were looking at in this short stretch of hallway was like anything I had seen in a prison before.
Our guide, BPI founder and Executive Director Max Kenner, invited us to sit in on some ongoing classes for about 5 minutes each. The first class we visited was called “Anatomy of Dance,” described as an anatomy or physiology class with a focus on dance, athletics and movement. We saw 14 students, seated at school desks very closely pushed together. A life-size human skeleton was positioned next to the professor’s desk as she led a review of the student’s midterm exam. The professor asked the class, “if you compared a track and field sprinter and a figure skater, what differences would you expect to see in their muscular makeup?” The hands shot up. One student concluded that the achilles tendon would be stronger and bigger for the sprinter, since he was pushing off the ground, while another jumped in to say that the balance muscles in the quadriceps would be more developed for the figure skater. I have never studied anatomy and would guess that it is a dry subject, but that was certainly not the case here. The students continued their lively discussion as we were ushered into the next room.
In the next class, we walked in just as one man was reading aloud. The professor seated and listening intently, as we all were, to this amazing oration. I was blown away - this wasn’t your average “please read a passage” school experience. This was serious Dead Poets Society standing on the desk reading Whitman type energy. The man’s reading gave emotion to the characters, his voice filled the room, and we were all transfixed. I wondered what he was reading from, and was amazed to learn that the man was reading his own writing. The assignment had been to take an insignificant character from a novel and to write up an imagination of that person’s backstory or expanded role. It was a creative, challenging assignment that this person delivered beautifully. That was a highlight of the trip for me.
The last classroom was a standard college level introductory math class. The students were working in small groups of three, and this was the first class where we had a chance to talk to the students. I met three young looking men who were relatively new to the BPI program. They told me about the application and admission process, which includes multiple rounds of interviews and has a single digit admission rate. Two of the men had applied several times before getting in, and they all seemed thrilled to be in the program. I asked how much of their time was spent in class or on schoolwork - expecting to hear a few hours a week. In fact, their entire day nearly every day is filled with class and study periods. Students must apply days in advance for access to the library, and do so whenever they can. It was clear that the students I met are more dedicated to their coursework and learning than any college student I know.
We then joined a larger group of about 20 students in the library, which we were told is a sanctuary for every student in the program. We heard from several students about their senior theses. One student shared about his two-hundred page thesis on sound waves and human evolution, the thrust of which was highly technical and beyond my understanding. He ended the thesis with an open question, which is rare but encouraged at BPI, as it invites future students to build upon the work of those who came before them. The question was whether certain positive auditory experiences, like a kid hearing a certain song bring joy and dancing their family kitchen, might be passed down from generation to generation. His thesis studied generational trauma, but he invited others to explore whether happy memories could be passed down from our ancestors as well. The conversation shifted when one of our group asked what the men had learned or studied about feminism. The responses were excited and well-informed. One student spoke about a class he took in his first year that gave him a foundation in feminist thought, while others spoke about how feminist writers featured prominently in many of their favorite classes. The questioner was impressed, and it set the tone for what became a varied and spirited conversation with the students.
Towards the end, one man shared in very vulnerable fashion about how he struggled for a while but eventually became resigned to the fact that he may never be released from prison. He spoke about how engaging with the program became less about himself and more about a way to stay in closer touch with his two children. It gave him a position to push them academically and engage with them intellectually, and he spoke about how proud he was of their growth. We then heard from our colleague on the tour that an important criminal justice reform figure had called that same day to rave about a young person that he should consider for nomination to a prestigious fellowship program. It was the man’s child who was nominated.
Leaving prison or jail as a visitor is something I have done hundreds of times as a public defender. I know it to be an uncomfortable, unpleasant experience that always leaves me disappointed in how our society treats so many of the most vulnerable among us. That was certainly true on this visit, but I also left with hope and inspiration and excitement for the men we met to come home. I can’t wait to see and support the amazing things they do when they get there.
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