NEW YORK — In between his busy football schedule, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins sat in a room with alumni of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that allows men and women to work toward college degrees while incarcerated. He listened to the stories of the initiative’s alumni who proved that they would not let the prison system define who they were as human beings.
They walked in as inmates and left prison as college graduates determined to become productive members of society. Their stories are documented in a PBS series, College Behind Bars, airing on Nov. 25 and Nov. 26 at 9 p.m. ET.
On Tuesday, Jenkins greeted a sold-out crowd at the Apollo Theater in New York City for a special screening of College Behind Bars. As a social justice advocate and co-founder of the Players Coalition, an organization composed of NFL players designed to build support, challenge policies and bring awareness to issues that matter most in black communities, Jenkins threw his support behind the film.
The documentary, directed and produced by Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, follows more than a dozen incarcerated men and women over the course of four years and details the setbacks and triumphs faced on their journeys to become college graduates. Throughout the film, which bounces between six New York correctional facilities that support the BPI curriculum, men and women are shown studying subjects ranging from genetics to intermediate Chinese.
“We’ve been conditioned to have an image of what inmates look like when in reality, they are citizens like all of us. We just paint them in this narrative in order to punish them,” Jenkins said before the screening. “But now, I think it is time for us to be more restorative in a way that we deal with incarceration knowing that inevitably, the majority of these people are going to come back in this society.”
There are 51,000 men and 2,400 women incarcerated in New York state, according to the documentary. More than 900 inmates are seeking an education, and 300 are actively enrolled in BPI at a cost of $8,000 per student per year. About 600 alumni have been released from prison and fewer than 4% have gone back, Jenkins told the packed audience.
Besides discussing the costs to taxpayers for education behind bars, the documentary revisits whether prisoners should receive Pell Grants again. Until 1993, incarcerated men and women were eligible for Pell Grants under the Higher Education Act of 1965. But a year later, after the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 passed under the Clinton administration, Pell Grant funding was stripped from prisoners hoping to receive a college education while incarcerated.
“I thought I knew a lot about American history, but I was surprised to learn that, for decades, college was commonplace in prisons across America. But with the 1994 crime bill, Congress and the Clinton administration banned Pell Grants for incarcerated people,” said Ken Burns, the film’s executive producer. “Both Republicans and Democrats were on board with this. The vote wasn’t really about saving taxpayer dollars. It was about punishment and denying opportunity. Eliminating Pell Grants for people in prison cut $35 million from the federal budget. That might sound like a lot, but if you consider at the same time, again as part of the 1994 Crime Bill, Congress committed $10 billion to build more prisons — enough money to fund college in prisons for 200 years.”
Now, supporters are pushing for a bipartisan bill known as the Restoring Education and Learning Act to reverse the ban.
“We’re encouraging people to write and hit up their Congress reps to make sure they do that so they can look at initiatives like BPI and see how much success they’re having and how little the cost is compared to their incarceration,” Jenkins said. “If we can keep people out of prison, we need to do whatever we can to make sure that it happens.”
Advocacy has always been a focal point for Jenkins, and besides supporting films such as College Behind Bars, Jenkins has been working on projects of his own through Listen Up Media, a company he founded in 2018. Much like the storytelling in College Behind Bars, Jenkins’ vision for his media company is to change the negative narratives often portrayed through television and film by giving marginalized groups the power to tell their own stories. Recently, Jenkins was the executive producer for the company’s first film, Black Boys, which will debut at the South by Southwest Festival next year.
Jenkins’ work continues on the football field as well, leading the Players Coalition and advocating for change within the NFL. In August, the NFL announced a new partnership with rapper and business mogul Jay-Z’s Roc Nation to help with the league’s live game entertainment, but also to boost social justice awareness.
“Everybody was kind of on alert when Roc Nation comes on board and obviously made news,” Jenkins said. “But one of the things [the Players Coalition] wanted to do was really sit back and see what their intentions were, what their plan was and how they wanted to fit into it. So far, they’ve come in and really want to be a support to and amplify the voices of players. They committed a ton of resources and dollars, not to Players Coalition but to the initiative and really drawing attention and awareness. They do that better than anybody. So, we’ll continue to try to work with them on furthering our initiatives, do some storytelling and really amplify this more than we have been able to already.”
Jenkins expressed his disappointment that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is still without a team, but also believes it is up to the players to continue to push the envelope when it comes to social justice issues and the NFL. With the help of Roc Nation and the continuation of serious conversations around the important issues, Jenkins is content with the direction in which things are heading and hopes that players continue to take advantage of letting their voices be heard.
“As long as we have the platform, we need to push it as far as we can. And adding people like Jay-Z and Roc Nation can help us do that,” Jenkins said. “I think the league, while it hasn’t been always smooth sailing, has put up funds, has given a platform and I think while it’s there, we’ll take advantage of it.”