John Jay’s Prisoner Reentry Institute Hosts “A Night At Otisville” With Tribeca Film Institute

John Jay’s Prisoner Reentry Institute Hosts “A Night At Otisville” With Tribeca Film Institute

John Jay’s Prisoner Reentry Institute Hosts “A Night At Otisville” With Tribeca Film Institute

“In many respects, the film screening program has become a pipeline to the pipeline.” —Baz Dreisinger

There’s a natural synergy between art and education. “Through arts education, people can discover if they have artistic talent—whether it's creative writing, comedy, music, or drama—and they discover that art is the window to their own humanity,” said Anthony J. Annucci, Commissioner, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, during the “A Night at Otisville” celebration hosted by John Jay’s Prisoner Reentry Institute, directed by Ann Jacobs, and the Tribeca Film Institute, directed by Amy Hobby, on December 11.

Baz Dreisinger talking with a Prison-to-College Pipeline student
Baz Dreisinger talking with a Prison-to-College Pipeline student

It’s that connection between art and education that led Baz Dreisinger, Founding Academic Director of the Prison-to-College Pipeline (P2CP) program, to reach out to the Tribeca Film Institute. Dreisinger, who has spent over seven years directing P2CP, bringing John Jay professors to Otisville Correctional Facility to teach accredited College coures, created the Tribeca Community Screening Series at Otisville to bring films to incarcerated individuals. And, the impetus came from the men at Otisville themselves. “Incarcerated learners would approach me as I was coming out of the Prison-to-College Pipeline and say, ‘What do you have for us?’” said Dreisinger. After connecting with the Tribeca Film Institute, film screenings, discussions, and workships organically grew into a new program at Otisville. Men volunteered to become “Tribeca Commnuity Screening Series Facilitators” colaborating on the events. “What's happening with the film screenings is that it's starting to attract new learners. People who didn't have an interest in college are coming to the screenings. Then they keep coming and engagging in the workshops afterwards. It gets them thinking about College,” said Dreisinger. “In many respects, the film screening program has become a pipeline to the pipeline.”

Baz Dreisinger with her Prison-to-College Pipeline students
Baz Dreisinger with her Prison-to-College Pipeline students

“The battle to lift the ban on Pell grants is something that I’m very invested in. We seem to be obsessed with sending people to prisons for really long periods of time, but what do we want them to do while they’re there?” — Allison Williams

Getting Everyone Involved
This intersection between education, art, and incarceration, resonates with a wider audience than many would expect. Actress Allison Williams, from the HBO show Girls and the film Get Out, attended “A Night At Otisville” and easily mingled with everyone around her. Beyond her natural ability to be personable, there was a larger reason why Williams felt at home—many of the men attending the event had been her students. “I’ve been to Otisville before, and I was able to teach a class on Shakespeare,” said Williams. “The most gratifying thing was that Sam [a P2CP student] just quoted act one, scene three of Romeo and Juliet to me at the table. That made my day. I had the most incredible time in that class. I wish the program could be replicated all around the world.”

Allison Williams with Tribeca facilitator Richard Seabrook
Allison Williams with Tribeca Facilitator Richard Seabrook

Even before her involvement with P2CP and Tribeca, Williams spent a great deal of time working with organizations trying to close the opportunity gap and the inequity of education for children in low-income families. “I grew up very lucky. I had a great education, and it always seemed crazy to me that it wasn’t available to everyone,” said Williams. “Sadly, when you don’t reach those kids, or you lose track of them, the demographics are strikingly similar to our populations inside prisons. That’s why I needed to know more about the criminal justice system.” After spending hours talking about Shakespeare and films with the men at Otisville, she’s become even more passionate about criminal justice reform. “The battle to lift the ban on Pell grants is something that I’m very invested in,” said Williams. “We seem to be obsessed with sending people to prisons for really long periods of time, but what do we want them to do while they’re there?” Williams believes that education is the best possible option for people caught up in the criminal justice system, their families, their communities, and the country as a whole.

Williams having a lively discussion with one of her students
Williams having a lively discussion with one of her students

“I work with one of the students in our horse barn. It seems to have had a positive effect on him. Since he’s been in the program he’s been more motivated and happier.” —Steven Drapala, Correction Officer

Seeing a Difference
Both the P2CP and Tribeca Community Screening Series projects are yielding noticeable differences in the men involved in them. “I work with one of the students in our horse barn,” said Correction Officer Steven Drapala. “It seems to have had a positive effect on him. Since he’s been in the program he’s been more motivated and happier.” For the men involved in the projects, the positivity moves from generation to generation, and program to program. Richard Seabrook—or “Mr. Seabrook” as many of the younger students call him—is a Tribeca Facilitator who encourages newcomers into the programs and advocates for education inside the facility. “The men that I have encountered have given me a ray of hope,” said Seabrook. “Before you can teach someone, you have to be able to reach them. You have to dig down deep inside and pull them back a layer at a time. They have to understand that regardless of their past choices, they do have the ability to change.”

(left to right) Correction Officers Steven Drapala, Anthony Brown, James Terwilige
(left to right) Correction Officers Steven Drapala, Anthony Brown, James Terwilige

“John Jay means having a future. Now I can have a future that won't land me dead or in prison.” — Haneef Washington

Being In The Program
One of the best parts of attending “A Night At Otisville” was having the opportunity to speak to the students themselves, hearing firsthand what the program means to them and what they hope to accomplish with their newfound education. When we asked, “What does the Prison-to-College Pipeline program mean to you?” Haneef Washington had an immediate, one-word answer: Future. Then he followed up by saying, “It means a future that I couldn't foresee for myself before I did the things that landed me in prison. When you don’t know what hope is, you tend to risk your life because you have no value for it,” said Washington. “Once you find education, it gives you self-worth. Once you have self-worth, it brings hope and you care about your life and the choices you make. For me, John Jay means having a future. Now I can have a future that won't land me dead or in prison.” 

(left to right) Jesus Santiago and Haneef Washington
(left to right) Jesus Santiago and Haneef Washington

“You see a lot of wasted talent in prisons. There are so many people that are incarcerated that could go a lot further in life. These educational opportunities are really needed.”  — Kevin Lilly

P2CP student Kevin Lilly, who’s in his first year of the program, felt a bit intimidated walking into his English 101 and Sociology 101 classes, but now he’s thriving. “When I first entered the class, I didn’t know what I was going to be facing, but the classes are very informative. It’s challenging, but I’m getting As,” said Lilly. He’s even started contemplating the larger ramifications of the criminal justice system and how it impacts populations. “You see a lot of wasted talent in prisons. There are so many people that are incarcerated that could go a lot further in life,” said Lilly. “These educational opportunities are really needed.”  

(left to right) Richard Seabrook and Kevin Lilly
(left to right) Richard Seabrook and Kevin Lilly

“There’s a certain clarity and eagerness to consume things like film and entertainment here in Otisville. The way the students deconstruct things is amazing.”  —Allison Williams

Leading The Way
The event brought together artists, educators, activists, and public officials. After watching the short documentary film, On The Bit, depicting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Equine Therapy for veterans, several students participated in a lively Q&A session with the film’s director, Ashley Brandon. Then members of the Tribeca Community Screening Series Panel held a discussion moderated by Dreisinger. Williams opened the talk by saying, “I want to make sure everyone knows they’re safe. The girl from Get Out is not coming to prisons.” After getting a well-deserved laugh, she went on to discuss film analysis, escapism, incarceration, and arts education with her fellow panelist: Hobby; Dino Solorzano, Former Community Screening Series Facilitator; and Moses El-Sun White, Former Community Screening Series Facilitator. “There’s a certain clarity and eagerness to consume things like film and entertainment here in Otisville,” said Williams. “The way the students deconstruct things is amazing. I’m going to bring my next movie here so that I can get all those notes from the very smartest film viewers and incorporate them into the final cut.”  

(left to right) Dino Solorzano, Allison Williams, Moses El-Sun White, Amy Hobby, Baz Dreisinger
(left to right) Dino Solorzano, Allison Williams, Moses El-Sun White, Amy Hobby, Baz Dreisinger

“Investing in programming and alternatives to incarceration reduces recidivism, helps create safer communities, and brings us closer to ending the cycle of incarceration plaguing communities across our state.” — David Weprin, New York State Assemblyman

Before the evening ended, New York State Assemblyman David Weprin walked up to the lectern and delivered some very powerful words. “Thanks to John Jay and The Prisoner Reentry Institute we are able to provide support to those who seek it. Each time I meet these students, I gain more familiarity with the program, and I see that the students are truly committed to getting their lives back on track,” said Weprin. “Supporting these programs is not only the right thing to do, but also smart policy. Investing in programming and alternatives to incarceration reduces recidivism, helps create safer communities, and brings us closer to ending the cycle of incarceration plaguing communities across our state.” Weprin went on to add that the assembly is working on expanding the program statewide, supporting higher education institutions like John Jay. “This past session we included $500,000 in additional funding to alternative-to-incarceration programs and I'm optimistic that we will be able to do much more.” 

New York State Assemblyman David Weprin listening to a student
New York State Assemblyman David Weprin listening to a student

More scenes from “A Night At Otisville”:

Kathleen Gerbing, Superintendent, Otisville Correctional Facility, with a student
Kathleen Gerbing, Superintendent, Otisville Correctional Facility, with a student

Anthony J. Annucci, Commissioner, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, enjoying a conversation with a student
Anthony J. Annucci, Commissioner, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, enjoying a conversation with a student

Laughter after dinner
Laughter after dinner

Discussing arts education
Discussing arts education

Embracing the holiday spirit
Embracing the holiday spirit

P2CP Students
P2CP Students

Students enjoying dessert
Students enjoying dessert

P2CP Student
P2CP Student

P2CP Student
P2CP Student

The screen set up in the Otisville gym
The screen set up in the Otisville gym

Festive touches for the evening
Festive touches for the evening

A warm welcome for visitors
A warm welcome for visitors