Notes from Susan: A Visit to Otisville Detention Center

By Susan MacLaury
Executive Director, Shine Global
Inocente-SmileOn July 29 of this year I was privileged to see our film, Inocente, under unusual circumstances. I traveled with Vee Bravo, Flonia Telegraphia, and Karla Rodriguez from the Tribeca Film Institute and Baz Dreisinger, a Professor of English at John Jay College, to the Otisville Detention Center about 90 minutes north of NYC. Inocente was shown as part of the Prison to College Pipeline program.

Here’s what stays with me from this experience.

I was absolutely blown away by the quality of the program that the inmates created and facilitated for themselves. I was a college professor for 19 years, have shown my share of films, and facilitated hundreds of discussions to process them, and what I participated in that day was as good or better than any one of them.

The facilitator did a wonderful job, which was especially notable since he had appeared before the parole board only hours before. He was calm and engaged and gave 100% effort and told us after it ended that he was hopeful that his hearing had gone well and would know in a few days whether or not he’d be released.

The men watched the film in absolute silence, then moved into two small groups to talk about their reactions and to go through a series of exercises based on names: how they’d been named; what their names meant; whether they’d rename themselves if they could and if so, why; and finally the topic of homelessness. We’d done an exercise to help us remember one another’s names … you know the one…. everyone thinks of an alliterative adjective and uses it in giving their names: Dashing Don, Exuberant Evelyn, etc.

For days after when I’d think of the men, I’d recall Lonely Larry, who talked about having been in prison for 37 years and had no idea where he’d live if released, as opposed to Devoted Don, who said he knew he wouldn’t be homeless because after 27 years in prison he still had family who loved him and would take him in. By the way, Don has earned two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s since the program started.

The men were very open, surprisingly articulate, and very accepting of us. Though most were serving life sentences none of us felt uncomfortable for a moment. There were two guards with dogs but given that these were both 5-month yellow lab puppies no one was taking them seriously!

I left feeling very touched and very impressed with the program. My belief in the need for programs that genuinely make an effort to rehabilitate prisoners was heightened. I’ll remember these men and am grateful for programs like (P2CP) making a difference in their lives.

Vee Bravo is Director, Education at Tribeca Film Institute. In this capacity he and his staff have developed and presented film programs for 18,000 NYC public school students and their families. For the past 20 years, Vee has also created arts programs for inmates at Rikers Island in NYC and now in additional facilities in upstate NY. One of these is Otisville.

Baz Dreisinger is a professor of English at John Jay who makes the trip to Otisville twice a week to work with the 26 members of the John Jay Prison to College Pipeline (P2CP) program that has partnered John Jay with Hostos Community College and the NYS Dept. of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) since its inception in 2011, providing college instruction to several dozen students to date. The program is seemingly very successful in helping inmates reenter society, find employment, enrollment in training programs, internships, and college and boasts enviably low recidivism rates.

Our film Inocente is an inspiring coming-of-age story of a 15-year old girl in California. Though homeless and undocumented, she refuses to give up on her dream of being an artist, proving that the hand she has been dealt does not define her – her dreams do. It won the Academy Award® for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2013 and continues to be shown around to world to students, activists, and dreamers of all types.