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MMC Brings Learning Sites Together with Crossing Borders VIII

Nearly 20 years ago, when Aileen Baumgartner, director of the college program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women, and Katie LeBesco, MMC’s associate vice president for strategic initiatives and a professor of communication and media arts, discovered they both lived in Westchester, they began to meet up and talk over cups of tea and coffee. Their conversations always came back to the same question: How to draw attention to the impressive scholarly work happening in the Bedford Hills College Program, which MMC has run since 1997. Though the program was flourishing, with more than 15 courses offered each semester to students earning associate and bachelor’s degrees, many at MMC’s 71st Street campus were unaware of it. LeBesco had only recently learned of it herself.

Before long, their brainstorming sessions gave way to a promising idea: To hold an academic conference at the prison that would bring faculty and students from Bedford Hills together with their counterparts from 71st Street. The event would allow them all to share work, have lively intellectual exchanges, and as Baumgartner would put it, “celebrate knowledge for its own sake.”

It took them a year to plan and work through the tricky logistics, but in the end, the conference Crossing Borders, was held at the prison in 2007. LeBesco hoped they would be able to repeat the effort every few years. On April 12, 2024, the story of how the event came together and how organizers aspired to continue it was recounted to a crowd that would appreciate it: The more than 200 attendees gathered in Bedford Hills’ school building for Crossing Borders VIII.

The audience included 70 students and faculty members from 71st Street, 118 students and site professors from the Bedford Hills College Program, and 20 guests. Many had come to Crossing Borders VII last April—the first gathering since the pandemic shuttered plans for a 2020 conference—and were eager to repeat the experience.

That includes Bedford Hills student Tiona R., who’s working toward a bachelor’s degree. Last year she moderated a panel on the experiences of incarcerated trans people; this year, she returned to read an excerpt from her essay Endured and Conquered, one of several works by Bedford students selected for MMC’s Honor’s Day.

She looked forward to Crossing Borders, she said, as an opportunity to celebrate all that she and her classmates had accomplished. “When you’re in prison, you’re already part of a negative statistic,” she said. “But this is a chance to be a part of something positive.”

Julie D., a Bedford Hills student working toward an associate’s degree, said she appreciated the atmosphere the conference created by bringing students on the inside together with those on the outside. “Crossing Borders makes it feel like college, not a prison,” she said.

At the same time, with attendance at this year’s conference more than 30 percent higher than it was last year, there were also several newcomers, many of whom had heard about Crossing Borders through word of mouth.

For example, India C., who’s pursuing a bachelor’s in Politics and Human Rights and was sent to Bedford Hills in November, had been told by classmates that Crossing Borders would be a good experience and hoped to leave it feeling uplifted. Alex Shadbolt, a first-year Behavioral Neuroscience major at 71st Street, who’d joined the bus ride up from main campus, was intrigued by an email he’d seen about the conference. As someone with a service animal, he was excited to learn from Bedford Hills students working with Puppies Behind Bars, a nonprofit that trains justice-involved individuals to raise service dogs. And Bedford Hills student Martha J., pursuing an associate’s degree, wanted to learn more about MMC, a college she had only known from afar.

Crossing Borders makes it feel like college, not a prison,” she said.

Their hopes heading into the conference were a testament to Baumgartner and LeBesco’s vision and a reminder “that we all share a common pursuit of education,” said Katie Langan, interim vice president for academic affairs/dean of the faculty, at the conference’s opening session. “Ideally, what we learn from it is that it doesn’t matter where we live or study.”

That common pursuit took shape in nearly a dozen wide-ranging panels led by faculty and students from both sites. There was the session with Puppies Behind Bars trainers, complete with a special appearance by three dogs in the program, and a panel exploring “Nietzsche, Nussbaum and Moral Philosophy,” in which Professor Mark Tursi and Bedford Hills student Omaiah “Meezie” T. led participants through a type of thought experiment that helps listeners tap into their philosophical intuition. Students in Professor Jane Maher’s writing classes, many of whom had seen their poetry and essays published in literary journals or accepted for Honors Day, also had an opportunity to read their work.

In another session, Professor Duston Spear moderated a conversation with the student artists behind “Fireball Manifesto,” an art piece inspired by artist/educator Tim Rollins and the art collaborative Kids of Survival (KOS). Rollins, who’d taught at an underprivileged school in the South Bronx in the 1980s, found a creative way to respond to a student who’d been destroying a textbook: Rollins began to tear out the pages of texts he was teaching, turning them into a canvas that his students used to create their own visual interpretations of the book. At Bedford Hills, 15 students followed that model with Alice in Wonderland, creating works of art in response to the book on a canvas of its pages.

Other panels explored social justice in a corrections setting, including a presentation by Lisette B. Hughes, a faculty member in MMC’s prison education program, that detailed early results from a small pilot study she’s conducting for her doctoral dissertation at Hofstra University. The research traces the potential benefits that flow to children of an incarcerated mother who receives higher education in prison. Another session, “Criminal Justice from a Human Rights Perspective,” explored inequalities in mental health access and abuses within the prison labor system, where incarcerated people are paid just $0.35 an hour for their work. Bedford Hills student Ashleigh W. also shared research from her paper Are They Human? No, They are Prisoners that explained how New York “Son of Sam” laws, originally designed to give victims access to profits a convicted individual receives as a result of their crime, have been so broadly applied that they can target any assets that an incarcerated individual has from any source, in violation of constitutional and human rights. Her paper earned her the Dean’s Award for Excellence at MMC’s Honor’s Day.

New York State Poet Laureate Patricia Spears Jones read her poetry during a plenary session and chatted afterward with conference participants. The Bedford Hills students,” she said, “are creative and disciplined and they welcomed this conference where they could show their scholarship and creativity and get an inkling of how to deal with the world outside prison.”

She added a final observation. “Learning is a powerful thing,” she said.

An Equal Stake
This year also included an exciting new element, true to LeBesco and Baumgartner’s early goal to draw more attention to the program: The conference was filmed by 71st Street students in Associate Professor of Communication and Media Arts Erin Greenwell’s Producing the Concert Film class. Its students are creating a multi-camera, feature-length concert film about Crossing Borders and filming other events that spotlight the work of those in MMC’s prison education program.

“From the moment I attended Crossing Borders in 2016, as a filmmaker, I wanted to find a way for those with limited access to go inside and see all the amazing work done by the students inside,” Greenwell said. “Film seemed a natural fit.”

Moreover, she said, having students film Crossing Borders, would not only offer a pre-professional experience but “would create unity between the 71st Street and Bedford Hills students because everyone has an equal stake in archiving an important academic conference that they experienced as scholars together.”

Greenwell said she hoped the effort would counter the exploitative and sensational media we typically see about prison. “I wanted the production students to be a part of filming events in which system-impacted individuals are fostering empowerment, peer-to-peer mentorship, and community from within the college program.”

Greenwell, who also teaches at Bedford Hills, is MMC’s Ferraro Fellow in Prison Education. In that role, she has been exploring opportunities to work together across MMC’s three learning sites, which include Bedford Hills; Taconic, a medium-security prison for women where the College has awarded degrees since 2019 in partnership with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison; and 71st Street. One mainstay, for example, is the annual Stand Up, Speak Out Arts and Social Justice Festival, which features collaborative work by prison education and 71st Street students.

She also sponsors the Bedford Hills College Program Club, a student group at 71st Street that looks for ways to support incarcerated peers. Because many of its members have graduated, the club has been less active in recent years. However, several 71st Street students who attended this year’s Crossing Borders conference, like Kalys Santini, a junior Politics and Human Rights major, said they wanted to join and bring new energy to the club. Coming face-to-face with so many counterparts at Bedford Hills, Santini said, had made all the difference.

Indeed, as the conference ended, Santini said they were leaving the facility inspired by the senior theses of Bedford Hills students who shared their major; it made them think of new possibilities for their own senior project back at 71st Street.

“Although we talk about our prison education programs all the time at 71st Street, coming to the conference made me feel closer to this campus and the students here,” Santini said.

Published: May 06, 2024