My Trip to Prison

Last week as inauguration day approached I had difficulty deciding what to do to mark the occasion. I am not a supporter of Donald Trump, so the obvious choice was to march with the women. My wife is a woman I especially like, and she would be marching in LA. Why not join her? My brother and his wife, who I’m also very fond of, were hosting a house full of marchers in DC. I could go there and march with them. The fact was I had sisters, in-laws, nieces, goddaughters, former students, and friends who would be marching in all four time zones. If I planned it well I could make it to two marches in one day. But that’s when it occurred to me that I didn’t want to march at all. In fact to march suddenly struck me as inadequate.

 

Marches are for stopping things. The March on Washington hastened the demise of legal segregation in America. Marches protesting the Vietnam War helped bring an end to that conflict. The marches in Furgeson raised the issue of routine, deadly police misconduct to new heights, and energized a new generation of political activists. What will be the effect of the huge rallies and marches we’ve just witnessed? I’m afraid they might have accomplished only a fleeting sense of common purpose, which may not last, since the purpose is diffuse, and Donald Trump wields enormous executive power which he and his people are using to, among other things, attempt to change the public’s perception of what a fact is.

If you’re an optimist you trust that every branch of government has people in it who know that that’s impossible, and have read the constitution and take seriously the oath they took to defend it. Optimists believe that Trump will fail because he doesn’t know, nor does he care to learn, how to do the job he has won. Which is what I imagine a lot of Germans believed in the early 1930’s.

 

I am not a particularly brave person, therefore I needed to do something that would give me courage for the battles to come. So, I called my cousin, Sasha, who works at Bard College, the small, relatively poor but truly great liberal arts college in Annandale on the Hudson in New York. (Bard is the ‘My Old School’ that Steely Dan sing about never going back to, on their album ‘Countdown to Ecstacy’, great song, great album, great band.)

Sasha and I share a good-humored pessimism about the world. We like the idea of optimism, but we don’t get there much. Which is why I was so struck a few months ago by the way she described a program she helps to administer at Bard, called the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI).

BPI was invented by a Bard undergraduate named Max Kenner who has built, refined, taught and expanded it since1999 when he challenged the college, and his fellow students, to help him bring meaningful education into the United States prison system. What began as a volunteer tutoring program was so successful that in 2001 BPI became an academic program at Bard, and in 2005 that program awarded the first Bard College degrees to incarcerated students. Since then Bard has enrolled 700 inmates, and awarded 375 academic degrees. The recidivism rate among graduates is %2.3 percent, and the career paths of BPI graduates who have emerged from prison and joined the work force would make any college proud. Other colleges in fifteen states have adopted the Bard model with equivalent success. The Bard Prison Initiative (and it’s offspring) is living proof that good education, more than almost any other human endeavor, saves, enriches and elevates people’s lives.

It is also just the sort of thing that people like Donald Trump and his special advisor, Steve Bannon would sneer at for political gain. They would condemn the idea of giving prison inmates anything but punishment, because their politics depends on an electorate that is angry and fearful. Black and brown convicts earning college degrees in prison are the perfect boogeymen in the Trump playbook, because besides ambition and imagination, what is most needed for a program like BPI to succeed, is courage. College is daunting for any student, but to apply to college from a prison cell requires audacious imagination and resolve. Most BPI students apply multiple times before they are accepted. The idea that poor people of color, who have been convicted of crimes serious enough put them in maximum security prison, could leave that prison with a college degree, and go on to become productive citizens, is profoundly disruptive to the us vs. them narrative that the so-called ‘alt right’ depends on. Courage is like kryptonite to Fascism. BPI is highly refined kryptonite.

 

All of these thoughts began spinning in my mind when I recalled Sasha telling me about BPI. But it was the hopeful, enthusiastic tone of her voice when I called her, and the same tone in the voices of BPI graduates on the videos of previous ceremonies that she forwarded to me, that made final my decision to attend this year’s graduation. I suddenly needed the chance to hear their joy, and to see the pride of graduates and their families, in a place where pride and joy do not normally find expression. So at 7am PST, on Inauguration Day I boarded a flight in Los Angeles, bound for New York.

 

I could have watched Trump’s inauguration during that flight, but chose to watch Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove’, and then John Madden’s ‘Shakespeare in Love’, on my computer instead. ‘Doctor Strangelove’ is a satire about a group of people, including the President of the United States, who have the power to prevent a worldwide nuclear conflagration. But because they are cowardly, petty, psychotic, mean-spirited and stupid, the world ends in a flash of nuclear doom. It’s hilarious, and not funny at all given how accurately all of those words describe our new President.

 

Shakespeare in Love on the other hand is a film about love, and how our hearts yearn for, and recognize true love, even when it’s being expressed by actors in a play. It’s also a speculation on what might have motivated William Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet, and as such it’s a story of inspiration. What it has in common with Dr. Strangelove is just that, inspiration. Stanley Kubrick and William Shakespeare, if they haven’t already met on that farther shore, will have so much to talk about when they do. In their too short lives, neither of them were afraid to look deep into the human soul, and make enduring stories from what they found there. They were both well educated, and profoundly inspired, and thus represent an egalitarian ideal whereby society recognizes and makes a place for it’s best and brightest no matter where they started.

I enjoyed both films immensely and walked off the plane relieved to have missed Trump’s alarming inaugural rant.

I’d already called my friend, Ben, and asked him to join me the next morning for the ninety minute drive from Manhattan to the Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York. Sasha, would join us there for the graduation.

Trump lost New York to Mrs. Clinton in the election, but he won a lot of counties upstate. It’s not hard to see why. Many of the towns we passed through look hollowed out, and the leftover Trump signs added to a feeling of abandonment and isolation.

The maximum security state prison at Napanoch is grim and huge. It was originally built as a ‘reform school’ for wayward boys, and the location was chosen because of the grey stone in the landscape, which is so plentiful that the hulking granite prison almost seems to have grown naturally, from the very ground.

I have spent time as a visitor in other places where people are locked up. Juvenile detention centers, a women’s prison in Arizona, the LA County Jail, but I’ve never been inside a less hospitable place than Napanoch. Yet, within hours, there would be laughter, cheering, and valedictory speeches so brazenly hopeful that they made the walls felt permeable, like insubstantial curtains that could be swept aside at any moment.

The BPI students who we met, congratulated, and watched graduate were taught by tenured professors, who applied the same standards they apply to all Bard students, and judging by the enthusiasm and warmth of the interactions I witnessed the relationships were as real and rich as any students and their teachers could hope for.

 

I’m saying that on the day after Trump was sworn in I witnessed something heartwarming, cost effective, and tremendously successful, taking place in a men’s maximum security prison in rural New York. I’m saying it was enough to give one more than a little hope. I’m saying that on the day after a Fascist became the President of the United States I witnessed an American institution of higher learning doing enlightened, wise and difficult work, inside another American institution designed to deprive, deny and remove.

 

I’m saying this is still a great country.

 

There’s going to be a fight, in all fifty states, for the next four years whether Trump remains in office or not. He appears less stable with each passing day, so a crisis, followed by more crises, is imminent. Mike Pence will be an improvement if Trump has to be replaced, in the same way that a Pit Bull with a muzzle is better than a rabid dog without one.

Meanwhile, we Americans have to start recognizing one another in more comprehensive ways. Look around. Keep looking. There are inspired people in all fifty states. Some of them voted for Trump, and many of those have already realized they made a mistake. Trump’s only option is to continue doing what he did to get elected; make outlandish promises while demonizing immigrants, Muslims, people of color, most women, gay and transgender people, and the poor. He doesn’t know how to be president nor is he interested in learning. If he was an inmate at Napanoch he would mock the inmates applying to BPI, and if released, he would quickly re-offend. Yesterday his ‘chief adviser’ Steve Bannon, actually told the news media that they should go silent, which is something that only ever happens by force, in societies under dictatorship. The Trump regime strategy is not subtle, and they’ve never had a majority, so fear will increasingly become their weapon of choice. There is no ‘normal’ to go back to, but despair is not an option either.

 

Last Saturday I was in a room with a group of men who had just earned college degrees. Some of them will be released soon, while others will remain there for years. Every one of them is more qualified to be President than Donald Trump.

 

Look around. Keep looking.

 

This is still a great country.

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