BPI Graduation, 2013
Saturday, January 26 2013
This will be a long and juicy story, and to fully enjoy it, you will need some backstory. Back around 2006 or so, Gretchen began working for the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), first as a tutor, then as a professor of English composition, then as an administrator, eventually becoming site coordinator for Eastern Correctional Facility (by far the largest of BPI's "campuses"). Along the way, I also got a fair amount of work setting up and maintaining computers and networks for BPI's computer labs in both Eastern and Woodbourne. Working in a prison is an often humiliating and frustrating grind, especially when your cause is the betterment of prisoners. Prison employees and administration frequently place obstacles and busywork in your way, often out of malicious spite. Why, after all, should these "animals" be receiving a free education when "my kids have to pay for what little they get in life"? Still, Gretchen felt her job for BPI meshed well with her life's goal of aiding the downtrodden and oppressed. She loved her students and took great satisfaction from their successes in the program. And so, despite the many aggravations, she stuck with it.
As bad as things ever got at the prison, Gretchen could rely on support from other administrators in BPI, particularly the head of it all, Max Kenner. Max is a master diplomat and knows how to talk sense into prison administrators, who (by and large) otherwise tend to pursue the most harshly-repressive policies they can imagine (luckily their imaginations tend not to be well-developed). A prison is a house of extreme authoritarianism, and maintaining a beacon of open-mindedness and academic inquiry in such an environment is never easy, but somehow Max was fairly successful in negotiating the administrative space that BPI needed to function. Gradually, though, as BPI increased in size, Max's role in the prison dwindled away, and he found himself spending most of his time trying to raise funds (BPI is almost entirely funded by donations sent in by do-gooder liberals, some of whose names you probably already know). Without the close presence of Max's relationships and diplomatic acumen, conditions in the prisons (particularly Eastern) slipped inexorably back to their most repressive defaults, making BPI an increasingly difficult program to run. Systems that had been functioning perfectly fine were gutted and new policies and forms of paperwork were introduced without any regard for their effects on the students or classes. By late 2011, Gretchen found herself having to do large amounts of bureaucratic paperwork that used to be handled by BPI students (who, due to a change of administrator, were no longer being trusted to do a task that it would have made no sense for them to corrupt).
Meanwhile, for whatever reason, Gretchen's professional relationship with Max began to deteriorate. In the early days they had talked on the phone almost every day and had shared a warm rapport, but with Max's direct involvement in BPI's day-to-day operations on the wane, so too (evidently) was his tolerance for Gretchen's brash extrovertism. At some point he actually called her into the office to tell her to tone it down, that other unnamed BPI administrators were expressing discontent.
At some point (I believe it was early 2012), a new BPI administrator named Megan was added to the workchart in a position immediately between Gretchen and Max. Megan is your perfect bureaucrat. She does precisely what she is told, no matter how unpleasant the job. If you're operating a bureaucracy that turns kittens into coats, organizes cookie distribution for a paramilitary youth organization, or mines gold from the mouths of minorities, you could definitely do worse than hiring Megan to oversee your operation. Most of the time, Megan's personality came across as that of the long-suffering quiet type, but occasionally there were glimpses of an underlying lack of empathy, such as when Megan initially resisted a plan to automate Gretchen's new load of busywork, saying, in effect, "The existing system is working."
Things came to a head for Gretchen in May of 2012, when Megan, acting in her usual mechanistically-bureaucratic manner, requested that Gretchen start working summers as part of her job as BPI site coordinator for Eastern Correctional Facility. There would be no increase in pay. It bears mentioning that Gretchen had specifically negotiated her job with BPI such that she would have her summers off. She needed free summers so she could attend writers' retreats, work on her poetry, as well as to detox from the many small psychological traumas that non-sadists experience when regularly exposed to a prison environment. Gretchen's response to this request was to say that if she was going to have to work summers, she would resign. Within a few days, Megan went to Max with this news and returned with the judgment that Gretchen would indeed have to quit. (In this, it seemed like Max was using Megan as the quasi-mechanical bureaucratic mouthpiece to give voice to something he would have had difficulty being able to articulate in person.)
But being a site coordinator was just one of at least three jobs Gretchen did for BPI. Not only was she an occasional English professor, but she was also Supervisor of Academic Advising, running a stable of other advisors doing whatever advisors do. (I'm not really sure, but it has something to do with talking to students one-on-one and helping them plot their trajectories through academia.) Losing her job as site coordinator would mean the loss of income and health insurance, but at the time my job had been bringing in a lot of money and so those things hadn't seem important. What was important was her relationship to her students, which she hoped would continue. But then came word from Megan that no, Gretchen could no longer be head student advisor. Indeed, she couldn't be an advisor at all.
Gretchen was devastated by this news and sent multiple emails before she got someone to explain this new policy. According to Daniel Karpowitz (Max's sidekick), the advisor program was being completely redesigned and now all advisor must have PhDs. (Gretchen only has a Master's degree; though she is pretty sure this "requirement" is only being applied to her.) At this point I was pretty sure that Gretchen would no longer be teaching at Eastern either, but she still held out some hope. Clearly somehow something personal had infected her relationship with Max, though nobody was clear what it was.
In any case, when Gretchen next saw Max (at some BPI function down in Manhattan), she pretended he wasn't there. I speak from experience when I say that when Gretchen gives you the silent treatment, you feel like an intergalactic void. She's very good at the silent treatment, though from all indications Max had it coming.
Fast forward to recent times. In the past few weeks, Gretchen became aware of an unprecedented change to the guest list for the BPI graduation ceremony to be held today at Eastern Correctional Facility.
Knowing how hard it is to get off of that list, she realized that the knives were really out for her within the BPI administration. But she couldn't bear missing this graduation. She'd either taught or advised nearly all of the students who would be graduating with both associate and bachelors degrees, and she hadn't had a chance to tell any of them goodbye. So Gretchen proceeded to pester Linda (BPI's office manager) with a series of emails in which she claimed not to have received her invitation yet that she wanted to bring others to the graduation, including a New York Times journalist (her friend Dina). At first these emails went ignored, but eventually Gretchen got an email back from Linda that had clearly been written by either Max or Daniel. It said she and I could come, but that there wouldn't be room for her friends. For Gretchen it was mission accomplished.
That takes us to today. This morning I got up early, stoked the woodstove to the point where it would be able to heat the house through a multi-hour absence, and then ate an enormous sandwich. (They have food at BPI graduations, but it's seldom vegan-friendly.) Eventually Gretchen got up, walked the dogs, and then we both changed into clothes suitable for attending a graduation.
Eastern Correctional Facility (some sort of stock photo).
Every visit to Eastern Correctional Facility is a frame of a filmstrip of bureaucratic sadism. What new indignity will Eastern's administration have devised to further humiliate its inmates and those who come to provide them services and support? Every graduation is different from the one before. In this one, the Bard professors and guests entered through one door while the largely person-of-color families of the graduates entered through another, and this segregation was maintained all the way back to the auditorium where the graduation was to happen (guards escorted us in separate groups).
As you might imagine, there were people at this graduation that Gretchen didn't want to see, particularly Max. But for the most part he was easy to avoid by strategic use of natural barricades present in the prison environment. Most of the other BPI people (professors, mostly) seemed delighted to see Gretchen, and some were curious what had happened to her. Gretchen was always quick to point out that her leaving BPI had not been her choice.
When we got to the auditorium, Gretchen could finally see her former students. Quickly a large group of them surrounded her, telling her how much they missed her and, perhaps more telling, how much they needed her to come back. They all wondered why she had suddenly and mysteriously gone missing, so she explained that her leaving had not been her choice. There was also lots of hugging, something the prison discourages between instructors and students. But technically Gretchen was now a former instructor. I have to say that although I felt ignored and somewhat at a loss as to what to do with my person, I was feeling very proud of Gretchen. Clearly she'd been loved by her students and was being kept away from them for some petty personal issue in the cabal running BPI (Gretchen suspects sexism, noting that the only women now in the organization tend to be mousey types who do as they are told and aren't given to expressing their opinions).
For whatever reason, the prison authorities permitted a large amount of time to pass before the graduation ceremony began, and this allowed Gretchen to meet and talk to a good number of her former students. By this time I'd had two cups of prison coffee from a big plastic coffee urn. It was better than my low expectations had prepared me for it to be.
Eventually, though, we took our seats and the ceremony began. As always, there was a parade of professors followed by the students. Gretchen shook nearly all the graduates' hands as they went by. One of her favorites, a little guy named Angel who was getting his bachelor's degree, grabbed her and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He tried to grab me too, but I was a little too far away. Today was his big day.
The various addresses that followed were the usual combination of uplifting, cringe-inducing, poignant, informative, good, bad, and ugly. There's always a member of the prison administration on stage, and he's always by far the most right-wing and authoritarian of the officiants. Today's prison administrator-officiant was well known by Gretchen as one who had made her job unnecessarily difficult and the BPI program significantly more dreary than it had been before his arrival. Still, despite his general level of awfulness, everyone had to pretend that he is a good man who is doing good things. It's been my experience that the prison administrator doesn't always give the worst address, but on this day he did. He'd overseasoned his speech with an antiquated style of humor of the sort Mitt Romney might use. Still, the room had the requisite mix of cheerfulness and anxiety, and his lines were all received with laughter.
The Right Reverend Calvin O. Butts (a framegrab from an endorsement he gave Hillary Clinton — not Barack Obama — during the 2008 Presidential Primary campaign).
The keynote address was delivered by the Right Reverend Calvin O. Butts, a well-respected activist pastor from Harlem. I can't say it did much to move me, given all the time it spent dwelling on the delivery of an unknown baby he'd allegedly witnessed while in a hospital waiting for his own wife to deliver a baby. The sight of a baby's head "rising up in the womb" was his metaphor for what we were seeing today: nascent citizens and academics making their first Alien-style moves before bursting out into a glistening world of curiosity and inquiry. (The reference to Alien is mine, not the Right Reverend Butt's.)
At all BPI graduations, Bard College's president-for-life Leon Botstein plays a significant role. At this point, most of what he says in his address is familiar, particularly the part where he points out that, unlike a conventional college graduation, at the prison, it is the graduates who stay and the attendees who go forth into the world. But today he had a new chunk of information for us to process. He mentioned that other elite private colleges (Wesleyan was the one I remember, but there were several) were thinking about starting up their own prison initiatives, but none of them, it turns out, were prepared to offer actual diplomas. They were concerned about debasing the value of the diplomas they give out to their normal students. Wow! I can just imagine a WASPy parent telling her daughter that maybe she should reconsider Bard as her college. "Some people with Bard degrees are prisoners," she would say, adding, "so when you get your diploma, how will your prospective employer know that you got your degree from the campus (the way you're supposed to get a diploma) and not from some nasty old prison?"
As always, the most moving addresses came from the graduates themselves. It's hard to fathom their situations, fortunate though they might be for finally reaching their respective academic milestones. We don't have to know their stories to know that they are profoundly tragic. One graduate directly addressed his mother in the audience, hauntingly telling her that this day was just a small measure of repayment for all the pain he had caused her. I don't know if there were any dry eyes in the house; the two I was most closely monitoring were certainly not.
The first student student address is the one that is generally devoted in part to shout outs to the members of the BPI staff and (less frequently) the members of the prison staff who deserve credit for the past two years of BPI. Max and Daniel always receive numerous mentions, and this year Megan was added to the list. But when the list ended and some of the graduates noted that there had been no shout-out for Gretchen, one of them called out her name, and soon others joined in, and then some began to clap. "We'll get to Gretchen," the speaker assured the restive crowd of convicted felons. And when he did, it was to tell about his early days in BPI, when he'd felt inferior and unworthy for all the times he'd taken the BPI entrance exam and failed. Perhaps his finally passing that exam had been an anomaly. Gretchen, he said, had taken him aside and told him that in studying at this level, he was joining the great conversation of ideas through time and space that is academia, and that he belonged in that conversation.
The graduates received their diplomas, the final addresses were made (including an uncommonly secular invocation), and then we all filed into the mess hall for a post-ceremony luncheon. Unlike the last Eastern graduation we'd attended two years ago, it didn't appear that the students were being subjected to a humiliating pat-down on their way to lunch.
By this point I was so hungry that all I wanted to do was set myself on a course for some food. So while Gretchen continued her frenzied catching up with her old students (posing for several pictures and even giving an interview to the press along the way), I got at the end of a very long line snaking its way to the buffet. There were actually two such lines, and I was in the one comprised mostly of prisoners and their families. Periodically Gretchen would wave at me from whatever she was doing, which didn't seem to involve waiting in line for food. The first food on offer was a place of diced cantaloupe. I'm not normally a fan of cantaloupe, but I was so hungry that I devoured it with gusto and, I might say, enjoyed it far more than I expected to. Next in the buffet was salad, and I got a plate of it without cheese but with dressing. Again, I found myself unexpectedly pleased with the quality of prison food on offer.
I was mid-way through my salad, not having yet reached the third station in the buffet line, with a thin white woman walked up to me and asked if I was Gretchen's husband Gus. I acknowledged that I was, and she introduced herself as Megan, the same Megan referred to earlier where I touched on her possible talents managing a gold mining operation in the mouths of minorities. Something about her attitude set me immediately on edge, and this feeling was confirmed when she said she wanted to talk to me outside "for a moment." She also wondered if perhaps Gretchen had left a coat somewhere in the mess hall and where that might be. I didn't really know what else to do but comply with Megan's wishes; indeed, the festivities were almost over anyway.
When Megan had said we were going "outside" to talk, I'd assumed she'd meant out into the hallway, but when I went in that direction she said no, and directed me to a door on the wall of the mess hall that I hadn't ever noticed and certainly had never been through. Clearly it was only to be used for whatever this unusual occasion happened to be. Megan had to knock on the door to get it to open; there was prison sergeant on the other side in another mess hall. It was empty save for him and Gretchen, who had all that I needed to know written in the expression her face. I know I've really fucked up when I'm the cause of that expression, but in this case the responsible party was Megan, who wouldn't, as I conjectured, give a damn what a minority thought so long as it was her job to manage the extraction of gold from his or her mouth. "So they're pulling the plug on your time at the graduation?" I asked Gretchen. I don't recall what she said, but it was affirmative, and then she turned to Megan and said something like, "There's a real meanness in you." At that point I felt the need to stick up for Gretchen, so I chimed in. "Yeah, I've heard about you. You're a horrible person." Megan didn't say anything; her job there was done.
One thing that is nice about leaving the prison in a party of two is that there is almost no logistical overhead. We were escorted to the front, signed out, and then left the building. (I was just finishing my plate of salad as we arrived at the outermost security gate.) Unfortunately, we couldn't immediately debrief owing to the needs of a woman in the parking lot who asked if she could place a call on Gretchen's cellphone. She had a broken arm and Gretchen had to do the dialing as well.
On the drive back north, Gretchen and I discussed what had just happened. She said she'd been in a conversation with a student named Carlos Carlo (the one who had first shouted her name during the graduation), and just as Carlos was about to introduce Gretchen to his family, Megan (who had been hovering nearby) stepped in and said that it would have to wait, that she needed Gretchen for a moment. She then had a sergeant unlock that locked door mentioned earlier, took Gretchen into that empty dining hall, and told Gretchen,
"There have been reports that you have acted inappropriately with students, so I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
"What, because we were hugging?" Gretchen asked. "That, and kissing," Megan replied. "I never kissed any students," Gretchen asserted, adding, "Look, you don't have to do this." But Megan has the cold mechanical heart of a robot sent from the future to ruthlessly administer a human bureaucracy. "I've had three people come up to me and say something," she said. Then it was back to practical matters, "Do you have a coat in there or anything?" she asked. "I have a husband in there," Gretchen replied. And so that was when the program running in Megan's control circuits jumped to the subroutine that sent her back in to fetch me.
Also somewhere within Gretchen's final conversation with Megan was a back-and-forth that went something like this:
Megan: Look, we were happy to have you come to graduation...
Gretchen: No, you didn't want me to come to graduation.
Megan: Well, we let you come to graduation. We didn't have to.
Gretchen: You didn't have to? After seven years?
Surely, there was a lot more going on in all of these machinations than was immediately evident. For starters, everything Megan had done had obviously been in response to an order by Max. Her greatest skill is an unflinching dedication to carrying out orders, and it's something Max (who tends to be a bit squeamish about the messy parts of administration) values highly. But why would he be so impetuous as to kick Gretchen out near the end of graduation? Had he just ignored Gretchen, she would have been leaving within the hour anyway, and he wouldn't have drawn attention to kicking her out. Surely our being escorted out of the ceremony had been noted by the students. What were they going to think?
One thing was certain after all of this. "I'll never see the inside of Eastern again." Gretchen mused. But still, she'd done what she'd come to do. She'd told the students she missed them and that she hadn't willfully abandoned them. Hopefully some of them will write to her (with paper and ink; it's not like there is an eastern.ny.priz domain).
I drove us to Rosendale, where we hoped to get fries and big boozy drinks at the Bywater Bistro (which I usually refer to as "the Bilgewater"). But it was closed, as restaurants often are when we need them in the winter. So we ended up at the Red Brick Tavern instead, which (given that it was only 3:00pm on a Saturday) was jumping. There was no room at the bar, so we were forced to take a booth. Gretchen had two shots of Jameson and I had pint of Red Hook IPA. I know Red Hook makes the worst IPA in North America, but I was craving the IPA flavor, and it was the only IPA they had on tap. Unfortunately, it still tastes like watered-down perfume.
Back at the house, Gretchen spent most of the ensuing hours on the phone telling today's story to all of her friends. One ominous theory we developed over this time was about the direction of cultural exchange between BPI and Eastern Correctional Facility. Initially, at least, BPI was an attempt to some how open up the brain space of liberal arts academia within the stifling confines of a number of prisons (particularly the mothership at Eastern Correctional Facility, a maximum-security facility). There was always conflict in this mission, but the challenge seemed worth it to all involved. And while it was doubtful that much or any of BPI's open-mindedness and tolerance would seep out into the culture of Eastern's administration, nobody expected the oppressive culture of Eastern to seep into BPI. Yet today's experience showed that, at least to some extent, this is already underway. Megan, after all, could make a seamless transition from BPI administrator to the administration of Florida's death row. Her loyalty is to Max and for her the students are just a commodity being processed through her bureaucracy. Her performance today, where she used the authority of the prison itself to eject us from the ceremony, shows that BPI is now willing to use the oppressive organs of the prison to achieve petty vindictive ends that no college outside of a prison would ever attempt. Imagine, if you will, had we been attending a graduation at Bard College itself. Would we have been kicked out? As I said to Gretchen, a scruffy homeless person could attend a Bard graduation and he'd have to shit in the punch bowl before anyone called security.
All of this might be chalked up to the typical personal rivalries that go on in all organizations (regardless of how much good — or bad — they are doing). But while in the prison today, Gretchen heard from students about a few bad things happening in the program that she would be doing something to fix were she to still be working there. One student, who has no family support, had told Gretchen that since she had gone he hadn't had any school supplies. (She had been aware of his situation and used to bring him notebooks, pencils, and pens.) Gretchen asked him if he'd told Megan the situation, and he said that he had. But evidently this hasn't been a big concern of hers. Another student pulled Gretchen aside to ask her a basic question that someone should have answered for him by now. According to Gretchen, it's an academic concern that's been eating him up but that could have been solved by a five-minute advising conversation. He has actually been waiting six months to ask Gretchen, because there does not appear to be anyone in BPI who seems willing or able to answer the question.
I didn't know this, but (in addition to her BPI responsibilities) Megan is also a Bard professor, though not (as it turns out) a particularly good one. We learned today that she'd recently been denied tenure, which is always a heartbreak for a Bard professor. For us, though, it gave us a little taste of schadenfreude, which is really all we can hope for. Though Gretchen despises Max and Megan, she certainly doesn't want BPI to fail. It's far too important to the people she actually cares about. And they won't fail; if history teaches us anything, it's that charismatic glad-handing wunderkinds working with coldly-methodical administrators make for unstoppable teams (at least so long as they avoid invading Russia).
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