Incarcerated Men And Women Find Rehabilitation And Hope In 'College Behind Bars' A new PBS documentary series follows prisoners who earn college degrees while serving time. Director Lynn Novick and graduates Sebastian Yoon and Dyjuan Tatro talk about how the program changes lives.
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Incarcerated Men And Women Find Rehabilitation And Hope In 'College Behind Bars'

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Incarcerated Men And Women Find Rehabilitation And Hope In 'College Behind Bars'

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Incarcerated Men And Women Find Rehabilitation And Hope In 'College Behind Bars'

Incarcerated Men And Women Find Rehabilitation And Hope In 'College Behind Bars'

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A new PBS documentary series follows prisoners who earn college degrees while serving time. Director Lynn Novick and graduates Sebastian Yoon and Dyjuan Tatro talk about how the program changes lives.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. More than 2 million Americans are incarcerated today, and many are looking for alternatives to prison and ways to help offenders rebuild their lives. A new PBS documentary series tells the story of one program that's offering a rigorous liberal arts education inside maximum security prisons with encouraging results. Students accepted to the program take classes in prison taught by Bard College faculty, using the same materials and meeting the same standards as students on the college's main campus.

Our guests today are Lynn Novick, who directed the documentary, and two graduates of the program, Sebastian Yoon and Dyjuan Tatro. They spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. Novick is a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and longtime collaborator of Ken Burns. She spent four years in prisons taping material for the documentary, which is her solo directorial debut. Yoon and Tatro both entered prison as teenagers, and both earned bachelor's degrees in the Bard Prison Initiative. The documentary, "College Behind Bars," airs tonight and tomorrow night on PBS stations and will also be available for streaming.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Lynn Novick, Sebastian Yoon and Dyjuan Tatro, welcome to FRESH AIR. Great to have all of you. Let's start with a clip from the documentary. This is a scene where there's a group of brand-new students at the Eastern Correctional Facility, which is a maximum security facility in New York, just been admitted to the program after a competitive admissions process, and what we see is a not terribly large classroom and a group of 15 to 20 men in blue jumpsuits seated at typical classroom desks. And Max Kenner, who is the founder and executive director of the program, is welcoming the new students. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COLLEGE BEHIND BARS")

MAX KENNER: Welcome to Bard College. Congratulations. We're going to start coursework Monday morning. And I think we should just start being really clear about the scale of the commitment, first of all, that we're making to you and, secondly, that we expect of you. This is a full-time and long-term and total commitment. When that door closes, you're at Bard College.

Faculty are going to be evaluating what you do as a student, exclusively. That is to say, the college has no interest in the nature of your criminal conviction, the length of your sentence, how much time you have left in prison. It's not our business. We're in the business of education. This is the thing we know how to do, and we happen to do it here. And when we leave this room tonight, there is now something that can be taken away from you that's completely different than when you walked in.

DAVIES: And that's from the documentary "College Behind Bars," directed by our guest Lynn Novick. Also with us are Dyjuan Tatro and Sebastian Yoon, graduates of the program. I'm going to ask each of you to give me your first impressions here. You know, Lynn Novick, I believe this project grew out of your own experience teaching a course, right? Tell me how the experience compared with what you expected.

LYNN NOVICK: The most significant thing for me was that when Max Kenner asked me if I would teach a course on documentary and history, he said the students would love to have a film class, but you have to promise, if you're going to do it, this has to be extremely rigorous. This can't just be watching movies and talking about it; you have to have a very sophisticated, demanding syllabus and assessments and writing assignments, and the students have to perform at the level that we expect for Bard College. Otherwise, you're not doing them any favors. That degree really means something when they leave this program with their degree from Bard.

And so I was a little bit intimidated by that. Just putting together the course was challenging, and working with the students over the course of the eight weeks that we taught was thrilling.

DAVIES: Sebastian Yoon, tell us what it was like getting started in these classes.

SEBASTIAN YOON: When I first got into the Bard Prison Initiative, I honestly had low expectations of the program, and I think that's because, in general, as a prisoner, I had low expectations on life. And when I actually started my courses, I was shocked by how rigorous and how demanding the program was. I remember telling my professor that, how can I complete an eight-page paper if I feel like I could complete it in only two? And she said, well, welcome to college.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

YOON: And it was a very interesting moment for me where I realized that the education that I was receiving in prison was the same education that I would receive had I gone to college out there.

DAVIES: Dyjuan Tatro, what was it like for you?

DYJUAN TATRO: You know, one of the most salient moments for me in my time in BPI is my first time walking in to the Bard library at Eastern Correctional Facility. And I remember walking in and seeing men like me in prison uniforms, except that they were speaking Mandarin. They were doing advanced mathematics, math without numbers on the board. And I kind of froze in place and just looked around the room and just felt really, really inspired. You know, that is not the type of thing you expect to be happening in a prison. So it totally enthralled me and motivated me to go after this education with pure zeal.

DAVIES: Lynn Novick, give us the basics of the program. Kind of how large are the classes? What kind of courses are taught? That kind of thing.

NOVICK: Yeah. So the program is 20 years old, and it started small. And today, there are 300 students in six facilities in New York state, mostly men, but there's one facility for women as well. The students have a quite impressive breadth of curriculum. They study all the disciplines in the liberal arts. And they are first eligible for an associate degree, and then if they can that, they can apply to get a bachelor's degree. They study math, as Dyjuan said, languages, history, literature, art, science, philosophy, economics, public policy, you know, public health. I mean, it's a wide range of liberal arts curriculums.

And, you know, spending time in the classrooms - as Sarah Botstein, the producer, and I did - I kept thinking, I wish I could go back to college and have this experience because it is - the classes are small. It's always a seminar style. There's a lot of interaction with the students, with the professor and with each other, and a tremendous amount learning also goes on outside the classroom.

DAVIES: You know, some might think that prison inmates would have an easier time focusing on all this rigorous schoolwork because they're literally, you know, captive in the institution and are not distracted by parties or dating or football games like, you know, students on a traditional campus. Are they right about that, Dyjuan?

TATRO: Oh, I think that couldn't be further from the truth. Prison is not an easy place to get an education. Your education in that space can be interrupted in all types of different ways at any time of day. There are bells. There are counts. You have to go back to your cell. You know, you forgot your book; you can't just go back and get your book. You don't have the Internet.

So there are a lot of things that impede your education in that space. And one of the reasons that we had to focus so hard and have that - the discipline that we had in this program is so that we could focus on the work and get the work done in a place where there's a lot of stress, pressure and distractions.

DAVIES: Yeah, this business of counts - I mean, Sebastian Yoon, do you want to explain this? This is five times a day, right?

YOON: Five times a day at the same time.

DAVIES: And if you're in class when it's time for a count, what happens?

YOON: Well, classes usually happen in between counts. But the problem is that there can - bells can ring off in prison at any time. So you can be in class midway, and if the bell rings because the count was off or if there's a security problem, then you have to go back to your cells.

DAVIES: It's to literally count to ensure that every inmate is is accounted for. So how long does this take? You got to go back to your - I guess to your cell - right? - and wait until you get the all clear?

YOON: Sometimes, it takes 40 minutes. Sometimes, it could take six hours.

DAVIES: Wow. How much noise is there, and does that make it hard to read, Dyjuan?

TATRO: Yeah. There's an extreme amount of noise in prisons. You tend to have these open cell blocks, and people are locked in their cells. So just to have normal kind of conversation, people have to literally yell back and forth. And so yeah, that is a huge impediment to trying to learn. One of the things I used to do is kind of put my headphones on with classical music, and that's how I would get my reading and get my work done.

But one of the things that was also great - there are instances where the other prisoners would accommodate us, where they would say, you know, the Bard guys are working at this table; let's go over here and make noise, or, like, the Bard guys are in the room - in their rooms studying. Let's keep the noise down. So that was, like, really, really kind of humbling to see that type of support from the general population.

DAVIES: You know, I was going to ask about relations with, you know, other prisoners. The numbers that I remember from the documentary was that at - there were about 890 or so in the institution, 110 in the program, which is a pretty good number. But that means a lot that weren't - probably some applied and did not get in. Others that have to do, you know, kind of routine prison jobs instead of being in class - was there jealousy or resentment?

TATRO: No. You know, one of the great things about being in BPI and one of the great things about this education happening in the educational space is that it really, really motivates people to be the best selves and to go on after this opportunity. So within the prison context, you know, people know who the guys are in BPI, and they come to us for advice. They come to us for essay-writing classes and math tutoring so that they can prepare to get into the program themselves. I have several friends who are still incarcerated that I spent my summers outside of class tutoring, and they're now in the program. So we really take the opportunity that we had seriously and try to give back in real, tangible ways to the wider population.

NOVICK: I was just going to chime in one other thing, which is I've heard Dyjuan, Sebastian and the other students, as well as Max, say that, you know, it also just sort of changes the culture of the whole facility and that, you know, there's something positive going on and that people don't want to get in trouble so that they have an opportunity to be there, to stay there and to potentially be involved in the program. So it has a ripple effect even beyond people applying to just - you know, the facilities where there is higher education have less incidence of violence and disruption and things like that. So people in the corrections department recognize that as well.

DAVIES: We're talking about the new PBS documentary "College Behind Bars" with Lynn Novick, the director, and with Sebastian Yoon and Dyjuan Tatro, two formerly incarcerated graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative. They've earned college degrees and are now employed. We will continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORATONE'S "FRONTIERS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're discussing the new four-part PBS documentary "College Behind Bars." It's about a program in which professors of Bard College give college classes in six correctional institutions. Our guests are Lynn Novick, who directed the documentary, and Dyjuan Tatro and Sebastian Yoon, two graduates of the program. "College Behind Bars" airs on PBS stations tonight and tomorrow.

You know, it's interesting. When I look at the scenes of the classroom in the documentary - it's a four-part documentary, and there are a lot of scenes - these classes are a lot more orderly and focused than I remember any of my college or high school classes being. People were invested in this. Were they all like that, Lynn?

NOVICK: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, I think, you know, having taught in the program myself, you walk into class, and the students are there. And they are ready, and they are prepared, and they've done all the reading, and they've read the footnotes, and they've read the ancillary reading, and they are - you know, you better know what you're doing. And they really love to engage the professors and each other, and that was true for every single class. I never saw a class where people weren't paying attention - not one - and we were in a lot of classes.

DAVIES: Yeah, it was interesting. One of the Bard professors said, you know, I don't have all these multimedia tools that you do in a big institution, but when you're in a class where everybody's done the reading, you don't need them as much.

NOVICK: Yeah. The faculty generally find this experience so energizing because of that exact thing - that they have to sort of - if they're teaching a course on the Bard campus and in BPI, they actually have to make the BPI version a bit harder, get more assignments and, you know, up the reading because the students are just so eager for the material and expect so much.

Adult learners are, you know, much more mature and have life experience. So I know when I was in college and I was reading Greek tragedy or Shakespeare or, you know, classic texts, it was just an assignment to me. I had to understand the idea of hubris, and I had to understand the idea of tragedy, and I had to understand these concepts. But I had no life experience to bring to that.

DAVIES: You know, I want to talk to you, Sebastian Yoon and Dyjuan Tatro, a bit about your lives. I mean, you both entered prison as teenagers, right? And this is not obviously the happiest part of your life, but - and you can say as much as you want about it, but I think the audience would be interested in knowing a bit about what your life was like coming up. And what were the circumstances that that landed you in this prison? Dyjuan, you want to share something?

TATRO: Sure. You know, I am originally from Albany, N.Y. I grew up in a single-parent household, the child of a disabled mother. My father was in Vietnam, came home drug-addicted and has never really recovered from that. I was a very precocious child. However, I would go to school, and just school - I could never reconcile it with the reality of my everyday life at home, and so I felt very isolated and disengaged there - skipped school very, very often. And it was often a joke that I would show up at school and get all these awards, and they would say, but you were never here. And school was just really too easy. You know, I would go in and do all the work in a day or two, and the expectations were really, really low.

I was in a poor, disadvantaged community, and I ended up at a very young age in gangs. And I went to prison for 12 years at the age of 19, 20 for assault. And I never had really thought about going to college until, all of a sudden, there was this thing that I heard about in prison called the Bard Prison Initiative. And that totally allowed me to reimagine myself. And I said, that's what I'm going to do, and I was in a different facility at that time - easier said than done. It took me six years to get from where I was to where Bard was. And I got there, and I took the entrance exam and sat in my cell and waited for the acceptance letter. And that moment when that letter came forever altered the trajectory of my life.

DAVIES: And the crime that got you in was that you shot someone in retaliation for an attack on you and your sister, right?

TATRO: Yes.

DAVIES: Yeah. Sebastian Yoon, tell us a little about yourself.

YOON: Yeah. So I grew up in Flushing, Queens. My mother left me and my siblings when I was 5, so my dad raised us three - my older brother and my sister - by himself. He worked 11-hour shifts, so he was mostly at work. And I think - I was lonely. I was a lonely kid. And at the age of 10, my family - once my dad made enough money, we moved to Long Island. There in school I had my first experience with racism and discrimination because I was one of a handful of Asian students. And I was bullied a lot. And I started to respond with violence because I thought I had no other option. And then I saw that it worked. When kids stopped bothering me, I guess I started feeling this false sense of empowerment. And then I came to crave it more and more. I just wanted acknowledgement and this feeling of power and security. So I started hanging out in the streets and, you know, I had a crew of boys that I always hung out with. And one day, we went to a karaoke bar, and a fight erupted, and somebody ended up losing his life. So I was charged at the age of 16 for manslaughter in the first degree, and I was sentenced to 15 years. And then upon entering prison, I felt the same otherness that I felt while I was in middle and high school.

DAVIES: Right. You are Korean American, right?

YOON: Yes. Yes.

DAVIES: And your dad went through some really tough times, sent you to Korea when you were little 'cause he was trying to find a way to keep things together.

YOON: Yep.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting, Lynn Novick. I mean, I think there are a lot of powerful stories in these documentaries of these students. Most had circumstances early in their life, which were really, really tough, heartbreaking in many cases. I don't think I heard anybody use that as an excuse for committing crimes, though.

NOVICK: You know, Sarah and I, when we got into the project, we were focusing on the transformational aspect of it, power of education, and what did it mean to get this education while in prison? But as we got to know the students, we began to understand the circumstances of their lives, which, as you say, were complicated, sometimes tragic, often involved exposure to violence and other tragic experiences. And, you know, we came to feel that it was important for them to - and they also felt it was important for them to explain themselves, how they see themselves, where they've been, where they are, through the lens of the education that they've been getting and their perspectives that have shifted over time. And so the film ends up and their stories end up, you know, raising some really important questions about violence and about harm and incarceration, and what is prison for, and what is the value of education? All these things are intersecting and overlapping.

And, you know, what we hope is that through these - their very courageous and generous sharing of their stories, we can all have a different kind of conversation than we have had about who is in prison, why people are incarcerated, what our criminal justice system does and doesn't do to - it's supposed to be helping people to prepare to come back to society and become productive citizens. We, you know, without quite realizing at the beginning, have ended up exploring this really deep question. And I will say this - when we started the project, sometimes people would say to us, oh, most people in prison will say that they're innocent and they didn't do the crime that they're there for. That was not our experience at all. Everyone that we got to know well took full responsibility for what happened and explained the context in which it happened and how they are reckoning with it today.

GROSS: Lynn Novick speaking with Dave Davies. Novick directed the four-part documentary "College Behind Bars," which airs tonight and tomorrow night on PBS stations. Dyjuan Tatro and Sebastian Yoon are graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative. After a break, they'll talk about getting their degrees, leaving prison and rejoining their families and how they think a liberal arts education changed them. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEFON HARRIS AND BLACKOUT'S "DAT DERE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Lynn Novick, director of the new PBS documentary "College Behind Bars," and Sebastian Yoon and Dyjuan Tatro, two graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative. Yoon and Tatro earned college degrees taking rigorous courses taught by Bard College faculty in a maximum-security prison. "College Behind Bars" airs tonight and tomorrow night on PBS stations.

DAVIES: There was a time when higher education in correctional facilities was pretty common. And then this changed in the '90s when we had the crime bill, right?

NOVICK: Yes, indeed. And before the 1994 Clinton crime bill, there were college programs in almost every correctional facility in America. And that had been true for over a generation, and it was well understood and accepted that education was an essential part of criminal justice and of rehabilitation. And in the context of the '90s and the tough-on-crime rhetoric and the super predator kind of, you know, demonization of people who have been convicted of crimes, as part of the Clinton crime bill, there was an amendment to withdraw eligibility for Pell grants for people who were in prison. And that's - Pell grants are supposed to be based on economic need. So once that happened, almost all those programs vanished - went from about 800 programs to fewer than 10. And there was a tremendous void. Recidivism rates skyrocketed for a variety of reasons, including this, and slowly, some privately funded programs started to come back in. And the Bard Prison Initiative, which was - began in 1999. Max Kenner, when he started it, was an undergraduate at Bard and just saw this need and, you know, convinced the college that it would be something that they should try to do. And so it's a pioneering program, not innovative in the sense that there had been higher education in prison before but unusual in the sense that very few institutions were doing this at that time.

YOON: And part of that crime bill, Dave, was comprised - allocating $10 billion to build more prisons, and $10 billion at the time was enough to pay for higher education in prisons for more than 200 years.

TATRO: By the way, you know, the recent research shows that for every dollar a state invests in college and prison, it saves $4 to $5 in re-incarceration costs.

NOVICK: And I think - just to put the button or the final note is that the recidivism rates for the general population are between 50% and 60%. That means that 50% to 60% of the 630,000 people who get out of prison every year are back in prison in three years. And the Bard Prison Initiative has had 600 graduates be released over the last 20 years. And fewer than 4% have gone back to prison.

DAVIES: You know, this is tough material in these classes. I mean, anybody who watches this film will think, gosh, I don't know if I could handle this stuff. And one of the things that I saw as I watched the four episodes - and this reminded me of - I taught middle school and high school many, many years ago. It was seeing what happens when students are first confronted with material that seems really daunting, and they have to learn to think critically and express ideas that are kind of uncomfortable and that over time you see them - they're - you know, their thinking and expression becomes sharper and more sophisticated. And you can just see it. You can just see this intellectual blossoming. And I'm wondering - I'm going to ask Sebastian. Did you feel yourself changing as you moved through these courses?

YOON: Oh, yeah, without a doubt. In the beginning, you don't even know how to use a comma. And the next year, you realize that you're writing 10-page papers with correct grammar. And throughout this process, we're constantly talking with each other, helping each other out because on, like, the outside here, you have the Internet; our peers become the Internet. They become the support system that we need to rely on.

DAVIES: This school also has graduation ceremonies, and this is very moving. I mean, there's - it's in the prison auditorium - right? - with, you know, caps and gowns and photos and parents in the audience. And I want to play a clip here. This is when you, Sebastian Yoon, are speaking at the graduation. And there's - I'll just let the listeners know there's an emotional moment here where you start to speak of your family, and you have to stop and compose yourself. And then you address your father directly. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "COLLEGE BEHIND BARS")

YOON: My fellow graduates, my friends, let me remind you that we have an obligation to share our stories and to uphold the idea that if we wish to have a better world, as we all do, then we must first change ourselves. Our stories, our lives, they are influenced by a great number of people. For me, my family has been...

(APPLAUSE)

YOON: My dad, appa, I'm sorry for having dishonored our family, for putting you through such an undeserved and unbearable pain. (Speaking Korean) Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

DAVIES: And from the graduation ceremony of the Bard Prison Initiative. Sebastian Yoon, your father was in the audience, right? We see him, don't we?

YOON: Yes, he was.

DAVIES: Yeah. I guess you still treasure that moment, don't you?

YOON: Greatest moment of my life.

DAVIES: Dyjuan Tatro, what was your graduation experience like?

TATRO: So I actually graduated with my BA after I was released from prison.

DAVIES: Oh, OK.

TATRO: And so I got to walk across the stage on Bard's Annandale campus with the other 400 students in my year in 2018. And, you know, one of the just greatest moments there is that when the BPI students were getting up to walk the stage, the president of the college, Leon Botstein, said - you know, he said these are some of our most distinguished and greatest students, and the whole student body stood and gave us a resounding round of applause. It was just a really, really moving moment to be celebrated on the main Bard campus in that way by all these amazing young people.

DAVIES: Wow, that's really remarkable. Well, you know, for a number of the graduates - and this was true of Sebastian, not Dyjuan - there was this - there's this terrible paradox where, you know, the fact that you are completing your college degree and graduating doesn't mean that you are released from prison. It's two different systems, right? And this is a moment from the film after the graduation ceremony, which we just saw, where I guess, Sebastian, you got your degree and, Dyjuan, you were attending but you're reflecting on what it's like to finish this joyous event and then leave the prison auditorium and then return to the housing unit where you will be rudely searched and then go back to your cells. So let's just listen to this. We will hear Sebastian Yoon first and then we'll hear Dyjuan Tatro.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "COLLEGE BEHIND BARS")

YOON: There's this moment where you walk past his door, and all you see is curtains and officers waiting in, like, rows. After graduation, there were like, 30, on each side of the shower room just waiting for you. You have this big smile on your face when you're leaving the auditorium and the mess hall. And you see this room, and then all of a sudden, reality just comes crashing upon you. And then you say, oh, this is my reality. But I thought what just happened in the auditorium was also reality.

So you have this problem where you have to try to juggle these two realities, one of which is so beautiful and one of which is so dark and disgusting where you have to reveal your body and your orifices. No, I'm done. I'm going to get emotional. I'm done.

TATRO: They are like, congratulations. Good job. And then they're like, strip. And then, you know, you're approaching this search area, and you're in this liminal place. And, you know, they're like, strip. And they thrust you right back into prison. And I always remember, no, no, no. Hold on. I'm a college student. You know, I'm a brother. I'm an uncle. I'm a son. Like, that's who I am. This is not me. This is not my identity. I'm not going to wear that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right.

TATRO: You know, I'm not taking it back to my cell and going to sleep with it.

DAVIES: And that's Dyjuan Tatro and Sebastian Yoon from the PBS documentary "College Behind Bars," which premieres tonight on PBS. Also with us is the director of the documentary, Lynn Novick.

Sebastian Yoon, how long after your graduation did you have to serve before you got - were released?

YOON: Two more years after my bachelor's degree in 2017.

DAVIES: Yeah. What was that time like for you?

YOON: I never stopped being a student. Even after you graduate, as long as you are in a prison in which Bard Prison Initiative operates, you're allowed to take courses. And what's incredible is that you can also serve as tutors, so you're constantly working with other students who are trying to obtain their associate's degrees or bachelor's.

DAVIES: And have you both stayed in touch with folks you knew from the program and helped - people you helped?

YOON: I would say that all my friends right now are my peers from the BPI program, and our network is really growing. When we come home now, we often help each other get jobs. That's how I got my job at Open Society Foundations. And we're just a really tight cohort, and we see each other as family because we've been through the same struggles and we got the same education.

DAVIES: We're talking about the new PBS documentary "College Behind Bars" with Lynn Novick, who directed the series. And also with us are Sebastian Yoon and Dyjuan Tatro, two formerly incarcerated graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative. They both earned college degrees and are now employed. We will continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOAM WIESENBERG'S "DAVKA")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're discussing the new four-part PBS documentary "College Behind Bars." It's about a program in which professors of Bard College give college classes in six correctional institutions. Our guests are Lynn Novick, who directed the documentary, and Dyjuan Tatro and Sebastian Yoon, two graduates of the program. "College Behind Bars" airs on PBS stations tonight and tomorrow.

Both of you went into prison as teenagers and came out as young men. And I just want to - after the euphoria of graduation, I mean, you certainly - you know, you had this terrific asset, this college degree that a lot of ex-offenders don't. But I'm wondering, was there a point at which it just seemed hard to adjust? Could you talk just a little bit about the process?

TATRO: You know, one of the great things about, you know, Bard is that it's recognized that it's not enough just to, you know, kind of issue a degree and give someone an education, send them back out into society. So, you know, Bard has some re-entry services, mainly job placement and career development. So I walked out of prison on August 10 of 2017, and I was back in college on August 24 finishing my B.A. So there was this kind of seamless movement from one setting to another. And that's not to say that it's not challenging, but that is to point to the fact that, if we support people transitioning back in society in the right way, they'd be capable of almost anything, you know?

I finished my degree in the spring of 2018. I went on to work for Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney on his attorney general campaign here in New York. I'm a math major, went on after that to do some project management and data collection for a tech company and then started thinking about how I could get back in the world. And I'm back at BPI today as the Government Affairs Officer, expanding - helping to expand access to college and prison through public investments in the work that we do.

DAVIES: And Sebastian, you can tell us a little bit about your transition.

YOON: So I believe that, you know, the degree is just a piece of paper, and I think there's too much significance tied to the degree. What I prize is the education and the knowledge that I received in the process of obtaining that degree. But in reality, out here, the degrees matter.

I think that realization came to me when I sat down and began writing my first cover letter and my first resume. I realized that all my experiences and my skills were related to prison work. I had to write that I swept and mopped floors. I worked as a cook. And I wondered - I couldn't help but wonder when I went - when I submitted this application, would they see this and give me a chance for an interview had I not been able to write that I received a Bard bachelor's degree? And I think the answer is no.

But I needed that degree in order to get my first interview, and then I went to four more interviews after that where I was able to prove myself through speech. I had to show my passion. I was - I had to show them that I was smart enough to be part of this group.

DAVIES: Tell us a little bit about the work you're doing.

YOON: Oh. So currently, I work as a program specialist with the Democracy Fund of Open Society Foundations, which is one of the biggest philanthropic organizations in the world. Part of our job is to provide grants and support to other organizations and individuals who are working towards social justice reform.

DAVIES: You know, I'd like, Sebastian and Dyjuan, to hear a little bit about how - reconciling with your families. I mean, both - from the documentary, it seems that both of you had supportive families. I mean, Dyjuan, I think you had a brother who had been - a younger brother who'd struggled and had been incarcerated at some point. Dyjuan, what's it been like connecting with your family again?

TATRO: You know, this - I'm the first person in my family who's ever gone to college. I have two brothers - one older, one younger. They have both been to prison. I have watched them leave prison and have to struggle in ways that I have not because I have had the privilege of a college education. And so, you know, this experience has not only been personally rewarding and amazing for me. It radiates and ramifies throughout my entire family structure, you know? It adds stability.

My family took care of me for 12 years while I was in prison, and now I'm in a position in life where I can support and be there for them. I can give them different types of advice. And so, you know, I think we always need to consider that we're not talking about people in prison getting a degree in isolation, you know? The vast majority of people in this country that are incarcerated are going to be returning to society. We always have to be mindful of how those people like myself are returning back to their communities and back to their families.

My family loves Bard College. They love the Bard Prison Initiative. They love this film. And it's just really, really - has been so emotional for me to see their reaction and have their support through all this and be able to share so much positivity with them after having gone through so much darkness in life.

DAVIES: Sebastian Yoon, what about connecting with your family?

YOON: My family has been super supportive of me, as you'll see in the documentary, especially my father. My father never saw me as a bad person. I don't see myself as a person. I believe that me having committed a crime doesn't make me a bad person. I just committed a bad act. And I think what surprised my father the most was just how much I transformed while I was incarcerated. You know, he likes to tell me, you know, many people, when they get pushed down to their hands and knees, the easiest thing for them to do is just lay down. And he said - he says to me, you stood up. You're looking ahead. You got this education, and you're trying to help people now. And I am the most proud father in the world.

DAVIES: We're talking about the new PBS documentary "College Behind Bars" with Lynn Novick, the director, and with Sebastian Yoon and Dyjuan Tatro, two formerly incarcerated graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative. They've earned college degrees and are now employed. We will continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're discussing the new four-part PBS documentary "College Behind Bars." It's about a program in which professors of Bard College give college classes in six correctional institutions. Our guests are Lynn Novick, who directed the documentary, and Dyjuan Tatro and Sebastian Yoon, two graduates of the program.

You know, what's striking about this program is that - I think a lot of people who think about ways that prisons can help incarcerated people get jobs when they get out of prison is to provide vocational training - you know, teach people to be welders or auto mechanics or, you know, stuff like that. I'm just interested in your perspective on this because I'm just - I imagine that, in a maximum security facility, there are a lot of folks who just didn't have kind of the educational kind of foundation to do college work the way you did, or maybe I'm wrong about that. I'm interested in your take on this - whether vocational programs should be there. Do they have a place as opposed to, you know, this really rigorous academic program?

TATRO: You know, I think that we want to have as many opportunities open to people in prison as possible. However, I think that we also have to realize that we live in a country and we have an economy where the type of work that vocational training used to give you no longer exists. Factory jobs are disappearing in this country year after year. The type of things that are available to people in prison currently are somewhat outdated. We need to be preparing people in prison for the 21st century, and I think there's no better way to do that than giving them a liberal arts education.

NOVICK: I'd just add that one of the really remarkable things about this program is that the admissions process is looking for people who have kind of intellectual curiosity and determination. And you can learn grammar. You can learn the math skills you need pretty quickly if you're motivated. And you see people on this kind of, like, exponential learning curve from places where they, you know, might not seem at first glance that they're ready for "college work," quote, unquote. And within, you know, a month, they're doing college-level reading and writing. So it's just - it's really an open question. If this kind of opportunity were widely available and the sort of foundational skills made possible, a lot more people could take advantage of it.

YOON: But to those who would ask that question, Dave, you could also ask them, would you ask the same question of students who are out here? As you will see in the film, there's tremendous potential among incarcerated people. And what this education does is it untaps (ph) that potential. It teaches you how smart you are. And with time, as we become scholars, the idea that we should be limited to just vocational training just becomes absurd. Vocational training is fine, but we should also be having an opportunity for higher education.

TATRO: And, you know, I'll just add that we have been - we have done screenings in prisons from California to Massachusetts. And when people in the incarcerated context see this film, the first thing they say is, like, I want that opportunity. I want that education. So when we start talking about what is best for people in prisons, Lynn said we should include them in that conversation. We should not expect that they are only capable of vocational training. Because when people ask that question or that question's being asked, that's usually the implicit assumption, that they are only capable of this level of education. And what the film shows and the work at BPI shows is that that cannot be more untrue.

DAVIES: You know, getting a liberal arts education is - it is a lot of work, and it expands one's horizons in a whole lot of ways. And I just wonder if you could reflect a bit on how it might have changed you - Dyjuan.

TATRO: Having a liberal arts education has made me a much deeper thinker. But while I was receiving that education, as I said, it was liberating. So, you know, the - in the Greek, liberal arts education literally means education worthy of a free man. And the paradox here is that I was someone getting that type of education while I was in prison, but the education itself is what liberated me. It gave me the ability to put names to systems and things that had impacted my life. And it helped me understand my place in the world and activated me as a civically minded person. And it has had a profound impact on my personality and just the way that I move through the world today.

DAVIES: Sebastian Yoon.

YOON: For me, a liberal arts education cultivated in me conceptual and intellectual openness that invited me to consider worlds outside of my world from different times, thought and space. And I think it bred for me empathy, which is something that I didn't have a lot of when I was a teenager. I always thought that my logic and my feelings trumped others - no pun intended. And, you know, just being in a classroom setting where I was sitting down with people from different backgrounds, listening to their stories and their ideas and you start to appreciate that despite the differences that we have, there are so much more similarities among us. And as I move forward in life and as I work to be a part of this social justice reform movement, I feel very passionate about it and excited that we are going to make progress.

DAVIES: Lynn Novick, congratulations on the documentary. Sebastian Yoon, Dyjuan Tatro, congratulations on your degrees. I wish you continued success. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

YOON: Thank you for having us.

TATRO: Thank you.

NOVICK: It's a privilege.

GROSS: Sebastian Yoon and Dyjuan Tatro earned bachelor's degrees from the Bard Prison Initiative. They appear in the PBS documentary "College Behind Bars," directed by Lynn Novick. They spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. "College Behind Bars" airs tonight and tomorrow night on PBS stations and will be available for streaming.

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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guests will be Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, the former Wall Street Journal reporters who formed Fusion GPS, a private research company. During the 2016 presidential campaign, they were hired by Republicans and then by Democrats and investigated connections between Trump and Russia. They worked with former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, whose dossier was leaked and published. Simpson and Fritsch have a new book called "Crime In Progress." I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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