Sebastian Yoon and ‘College Behind Bars’ on PBS

This wasn’t the way things were supposed to end up. A karaoke night ended up with jail time for Sebastian Yoon. Yoon is one of several inmates who earned a college degree in the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) profiled in Lynn Novick’s “College Behind Bars” which is scheduled to air on 25-26 November 2019. First announced in February of this year, the four-part film will be broadcast over two consecutive nights, unfolding without narration, looking at the lives and experiences of incarcerated men and women and their families. Executive produced by Ken Burns, “College Behind Bars” is Novick’s first solo directorial debut.

Yoon was one of the panelists present at the TCA PBS Summer Showcase. Yoon, who just got out of jail four months ago, and recently went to a job interview. “BPI boosted my confidence,” Yoon said.

Bard has nothing to do with Shakespeare. The BPI has been operating since 2001 and enrolls about 300 incarcerated students full-time in programs that culminate in degrees fro Bard College. It has an alumni support system in and around New York City. Bard College was founded as St. Stephen’s College in 1860 by  John and Margaret Bard in association with leaders of the Episcopal Church in New York City. In 1928, St. Stephen’s became an undergraduate school of Columbia University. In 1934, the named was changed to Bard in honor of its founders. In 1944, when Bard decided to allow women to study at the college, Bard ended its relationship with Columbia, becoming an independent liberal arts college. BPI is predominately funded by private donors and the challenge is getting people to understand this isn’t just a government-funded program. Yet it is a program that the US desperately needs.

The US is  the world’s largest jailer, with more than 2 million men and women behind bars; 630,000 are released annually, and nearly 50 percent end up back in prison within five years. BPI attempts to break the cycle of imprisonment, release and re-incarceration. As one BPI student notes, “Prison is to punish. It’s not about creating productive beings. Individuals are not being prepared for anything other than what they’ve already been doing – crime.”

Both of the BPI graduates on the PBS panel had committed serious crimes. In the documentary, Novick said that she wants to “make sure that information comes about at the right time,” after the viewers have gotten to know them as people so viewers won’t “label them by their crime.” Yoon came from a middle-income household with a single parent. As he explains it, “My dad was always at work. I’m not putting him down. I was 16 years old and I wanted to find love. It’s there that I made some mistakes and I ended up in prison.”

According to court documents, Yoon, then 16, was with his friends Ryan Dufort, 15; Christopher Baez; Jeffrey Shih, 20; and John Bae on 7 October 2006. The five young men went to Pastel Karaoke bar in Queens, New York just before midnight. They were carrying pipes taken from a nearby construction site, “just in case” an altercation occurred. They “met up with a larger group of about twenty students from Bayside High School, some of who were affiliated with a local gang known as the ‘Ghost Shadows.'” At about 3 a.m. on 8 October 2006, another group of four Korean American teenagers arrived and as this group attempted to leave at 3:50 a.m., two of the group members, Jung  Hwa  Lee and Mink‐ki Shin were attacked. Yoon entered a private room occupied by his friends and informed them that a fight had broken out.

“Yoon grabbed a bag full of weapons and headed towards the fight,” according to court documents.  After the fight was over, Lee and Shin were transported to a hospital where Lee was pronounced dead. “Yoon pled guilty to manslaughter on November 28, 2007 and implicated five assailants during his plea allocution.”

At the time of the incident, Yoon had just started his junior year in high school.  In his first 14 months at Rikers Island, he earned his GED. Yoon eventually served 12 and a half years out of a 15-year sentence. Originally, “the Asian guys would pull me to the side and tell me the rules,” Yoon noted. Yet while the prison culture may segregate people by race, BPI “forced me to engage with people outside of my race” as well as people from “different backgrounds.”  Yoon recalled there was a “magical moment when you realized” that despite differences, another person “thinks in a way that I can understand.” He added, that “words are our greatest gifts.”

Novick stated that she hoped this documentary would show the experience of incarceration in NY state and ask whether our present system is functional as well as what role local communities can play. “This film challenges conventional wisdom about education and incarceration, and raises questions we urgently need to address,” Novick said. “What ultimately is prison for? Who in America has access to educational opportunity? Who among us is capable of academic excellence? How can we break the cycle of recidivism? How can we have justice without redemption?” Burns felt the documentary showed the transformative nature of education.

Yoon who hopes to successfully re-enter a society that he left as a teenager added, you can’t “build bridges if you’re not willing to listen to each other.”

College Behind Bars” was shot over four years in maximum and medium security prisons in New York state and is a production of Skiff Mountain Films, in association with Florentine Films and WETA-TV.


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