The poster on the wall was a kind of marquee. "TRIBECA FILM INSTITUTE COMMUNITY SCREENING SERIES — ‘3 ½ MINUTES, 10 BULLETS’ — FEBRUARY 17TH, 2016." But the venue was very different from the usual fare of Tribeca, best known for its glamorous annual film festival in New York, founded by Robert De Niro. Tonight's screening was in Otisville Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison about 60 miles northwest of Manhattan. The audience was a roomful of prisoners in muted green and maroon clothing, several of whom were serving out life sentences.
Nearby stood Virgilio "Vee" Bravo, Tribeca’s VP of Education. He watched from the rear of the room as three inmates he had been working with for months stood in front of the men, introducing the film they were about to watch. "Let’s thank Virgilio Bravo and Tribeca," said Charles "Chas" Ransom, whom Bravo had chosen as a "facilitator" through a competitive process. The men broke into applause. "Big Vee!" called one, and Bravo laughed and playfully performed a bodybuilder pose. Later, another of the facilitators, Moses El-Sun White, stood before the audience and said, "I don’t see a room full of bad dudes. I see a room full of good dudes who made bad decisions."
The evening’s screening—Tribeca does two every month—would also serve as an on-ramp to other educational initiatives in the prison; several men in the audience had come to early screenings where they learned about a higher education program in the prison offered through John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Before the screening began, Alejo Rodriguez, one of the three facilitators for the evening, asked how many of the men had been to prior screenings. Roughly two thirds raised their hands; the rest were new. Rodriguez welcomed them and told them they were in for a powerful film—about the 2012 shooting death of unarmed black teen Jordan Davis by a white vigilante—and discussion. "Those who know, know. Those who don’t know, ride with us, man," he said.
The lights in the front of the room dimmed for the movie, but a bare bulb on the rear wall remained shining on the back of the men’s heads, the better for a correctional officer on an elevated platform oversee the men. The film began to play.
Running prison screenings had not been in Vee Bravo’s job description. When he was hired at Tribeca in 2011, the main thrust of his gig was to bring film education initiatives into New York’s public schools. Indeed, that remains a large part of his job, and he currently oversees various film-related programs that service over 18,000 public school students and teachers.
But Bravo had a longstanding interest in mass incarceration and prison education. Growing up in Far Rockaway, Queens, people in his community kept getting locked up, so often on simple drug possession. "I realized there was a direct relationship between the prison industrial complex and poor communities of color," he recalls today. In the '90s, he became a hip-hop journalist, editing a column for a magazine about prisons, and he began to visit them. Meanwhile, the U.S. prison population soared (it now stands at 2.4 million, giving the U.S. one of the highest incarceration rates in the world).
Bravo kept wanting to work to connect prisoners to the outside world. When he started making documentaries for PBS, he made sure to screen them in prison. When he worked for the famed documentarian Albert Maysles, he did the same. "I thought of prison audiences as a vital stakeholder group in the community," he recalls.
When he interviewed for the job at Tribeca in 2011, he didn’t bring up his central passion. "I don’t think it came up," he says. But soon enough, once he got the job, Bravo broached the idea of prison education initiatives with his boss.
It was a bit of a gamble. After all, this wasn’t what he’d been hired for. But over the years, he’d developed a bit of a philosophy about pitching projects he was passionate about to bosses.
The bottom line, he says, to people mulling pitching a new initiative to their own bosses: Don’t be vague. Don’t pitch a fleeting fancy. "If someone opens the door for you, you have to assume leadership and be ready to take that on," he says. Don’t be a dreamer; be a planner. "We all want to end poverty, we all want to find a cure for cancer," he says. "But if you put that in the form of a proposal, attach a budget to it, and look at outcomes, figure out how to measure success," then you have a much better shot of getting buy-in from a superior.
Bravo brought up the idea with Tribeca’s executive director. Within days, he had a green light. By 2012, he was screening films on Rikers Island. And in 2014, he met Baz Dreisinger.
Baz Dreisinger came to prison education a few years later than Bravo. In 2001, she visited Shawangunk Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison, to give a talk on race, which she studied. She was floored by the level of the responses she got. "There were 100 men at that talk, and they were asking me some of the sharpest, most incisive questions I’d ever been asked in my life," she says. "After I walked out that night, it basically became an obsession for me."
Again, as with Bravo, becoming an advocate for prison education was not necessarily in her job description. Dreisinger was an academic; she had a PhD in English from Columbia University. By 2005, she was working at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, but John Jay didn’t have a prison education program; prison education in general had grown vanishingly rare since Bill Clinton’s 1994 omnibus crime bill eliminated federal financial aid for prisoners. (The Obama administration only tentatively began to reinstate some Pell grants for prisoners last year).
"It was not easy to sell to our board," recalls Dreisinger. And "it was a challenge getting even progressive funders." Still, Dreisinger prevailed. Today, she runs John Jay’s Prison-to-College Pipeline, which launched at Otisville in 2011. Students begin college on the inside; when they’re released, they’re guaranteed a slot in the City University of New York system. There are about 25 current students in prison, and 25 who’ve "come home," says Dreisinger.
What Dreisinger rapidly found, though, was that there was more demand for her program than there was availability. And in the case of certain long-term prisoners, many had already maxed out on educational opportunities available to them—sometimes decades ago. "I would constantly get approached in prison by men like Alejo, Chas, and El-Sun, who had long sentences and were hungry for educational opportunities," she says. So she joined forces with Vee Bravo and Tribeca, and the screening series at Otisville was born.
Like Bravo, Dreisinger's is a story of taking the job she was given, and molding it into the one she wanted. "That’s the story of my life," she says. "People assume I’m a sociologist or criminologist, but I learned it on the job. The Prison-to-College Pipeline, I’m more proud of that than anything in my life."
She goes on: "If you’re passionate about it, an avid learner, and committed to it, then build it and they will come."
At Otisville, the screening winds to its conclusion. Ransom, White, and Rodriguez break the men into three groups, leading them in discussion. In Rodriguez’s group, conversation about the film turns heady immediately, as the men pick apart Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" laws, which so wildly lower the bar for self-defense claims. "Citizens are killing people because they thought he had a gun? That has to be addressed," says one. "My mother told me you have to teach young black males how to deal with police authority," says another. "These are not things young white men have to learn..."
As the evening unfolds, the conversation winds more generally to the topic of justice.
"What does it take to have justice?" White asks the men, as Bravo looks on.
One of the incarcerated men responds immediately: "Education."