It was movie night for inmates this week at the Otisville state prison, which is about 80 miles north of the city, in Orange County. A documentary filmmaker came to screen her latest project and answer questions from the audience. It was part of an event celebrating programs that help inmates engage and study while they are incarcerated and prepare for the world that awaits them.
The gymnasium at the state prison in Otisville does not usually have a red carpet, ball tables, or dessert, but it was a special night.
Filmmaker Ashley Brandon had just screened her new documentary. Brandon is one of many filmmakers the Tribeca Film Institute has sent to Otisville over the last several years to share movies and speak with inmates.
"What kind of hurdles did you run into trying to create your first film?" one inmate asked Brandon.
For the inmates at these screenings, watching and discussing the documentaries can be cathartic, a chance for a connection to something outside the prison fence.
"It's helped me out a lot," said Wilbert Serrano, an Otisville Correctional Facility inmate. "It opens everybody's mind to what's going on, because there's a lot of individuals here that have been incarcerated here 20-plus years and haven't been in society. So they get to see everything that's going on."
Serrano is set to be released from Otisville in May, and he knows what he wants to do when he gets out, thanks to another program at Otisville: John Jay College's Prison-to-College Pipeline.
"I've got a 4.0 GPA, which I'm really proud of," Serrano said. "I plan to attend John Jay when I get home. I have a lot of plans."
There are about 50 inmates in the program taking college classes taught by John Jay professors.
"Our students begin college on the inside and then they are guaranteed a place in CUNY [City University of New York] when they are released," said Baz Dreisinger of the John Jay College Prison-to-College Pipeline. "And we work with them on all aspects of their release to ensure a smooth transition between inside and outside."
John Jay College and the Tribeca Film Institute gathered with inmates, state officials, and celebrity supporters at Otisville to showcase their outreach to inmates and celebrate the results.
"Allowing people to grow and learn and continue their educations in a very unexpected place is something I am very, very much a proponent of," actress Allison Williams said.
The incarcerated men in these programs are starting to open doors to the outside world — doors they hope to pass through as soon as possible.
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