College Behind Bars: The Bard Prison Initiative tells the untold story of a small group of incarcerated men and women in New York State struggling to turn their lives around in a rigorous and highly effective liberal arts college degree program – the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI). Through their stories, the film will shine a light on the fundamental relationship between incarceration and education, put a human face on America’s criminal justice crisis, and challenge conventional wisdom about the human potential for emotional, moral, and intellectual transformation. The film will raise questions that our society urgently needs to address: What is prison for? Who has access to educational opportunity? Who among us is capable of academic excellence?

America’s criminal justice system is broken. With 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. houses 25% of the globe’s prisoners. Nearly 2,400,000 Americans are currently locked up. 7 million more are under some kind of supervision: parole, probation, house arrest. Nearly 700,000 offenders re-enter society annually; 70% are back behind bars within five years, trapped in a cycle of imprisonment, release, and re-incarceration. As one BPI student told us, “Prison is to punish. It’s not about creating productive beings. Individuals get disillusioned because they’re not being prepared for anything other than what they’ve already been doing - - which is crime.”

Although higher education is the most reliable -- and economical -- way to transform offenders into productive citizens, it has been essentially absent from American prisons since 1994 when Congress ended Pell grants for inmates. Today, only a handful of prison college degree programs exist – like BPI, most are privately funded. As another student explained, “BPI is one of the only opportunities that’s gonna make a difference in us not comin’ back.” Since the program began nearly 15 years ago, hundreds of alumni have been released; fewer than 4% have gone back to prison.

We will film BPI student/inmates from August, 2014 to January 2017, as they as evolve intellectually and emotionally, and as they wrestle with the enormous challenges of being both prisoners and college students. The film’s power lies in the wrenching stories they tell, and the eloquence with which they tell them. It has the potential to transform our national debate about crime and punishment, rehabilitation and recidivism, retribution and redemption.