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Ashley: Hey, everyone! I’m Ashley Asti and this is I’m Curious podcast. My guest today is Stacy Lyn Burnett, who got her college degree in her forties while she was in prison. Stacy was part of the groundbreaking program BPI, or Bard Prison Initiative, which enrolls hundreds of incarcerated students full-time in college programs. And when these students graduate, they cross that stage with a real degree from Bard College in their hands.
Ashley: I’ve wanted to talk to someone who went through this program ever since I saw College Behind Bars on Netflix, a documentary that’s an intimate look at the lives and experiences of a dozen incarcerated BPI students and their families. BPI is reimagining who deserves a college education and how it can transform the lives and possibilities not only of those we send to prison, but of the communities they return to.
Ashley: Stacy has worked for years as a writer before going to prison, and now works for College & Community Fellowship in New York, where she supports criminal justice-impacted women.
Ashley: In this episode, Stacy’s not only a truth-teller, but a fascinating and bold storyteller. So let’s dive in.
Ashley: Alright, we’re recording. I’m really excited to have you as a guest, Stacy. As I had told you, I had seen the College Behind Bars documentary—the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick Netflix documentary about the Bard Prison Initiative. And that led me on a Twitter rabbit hole, which eventually led me to you. Because that was a film I couldn’t’t stop thinking about. So thanks for being here.
Stacy: Oh, it’s my pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Ashley: Yeah, we’re going to go into your education and even some of the things you’re doing now, but I always like to take it back a little bit at the beginning. On the BPI, or Bard Prison Initiative, blog you had written, “From 2008 to 2013, I learned 67 uses for state-issued toothpaste. I learned the lights never go out in solitary confinement, and I learned my son was calling a complete stranger ‘Mom.’” I want to unpack some of that but, first, to go back: what was your life like before 2008 and before your incarceration?
Stacy: Most of my life was pretty great. I had a successful career, I was writing. I had just had a son and he was almost 2 when I got locked up in 2008. So, I am bipolar and while I was pregnant and breastfeeding, I wasn’t taking any sort of medication, and that’s when everything sounded like a great idea. So I started, you know, not really relying on logic to run my life, and unmedicated bipolar disorder is really not conducive to having a well-structured life, and some of my decisions wound up landing me in prison because I wrote a bunch of checks thinking I was going to win the lottery. I didn’t have to buy a lottery ticket, mind you. I was just going to win the lottery and all of those problems would go away. So that is the mindset or the frame of mind I was in when I entered the criminal justice system.
Ashley: So the writer in me has to ask, of all that you just talked about, what kind of writing were you doing?
Stacy: For the majority of that time, ironically enough, I was writing true crime. I was a ghostwriter for a pretty well-published series of true crime novels. I also wrote business plans and communications pieces. For instance, when a merger happened between two of the big five accounting firms, I went through all of their communications, made sure that the tone was right, that it struck the right note between the two different firms, and that it still was on message. Because one of the things about ghostwriting is you really learn how to speak in somebody else’s voice, so it was a really easy transition for me to do that.
Ashley: Yeah, I could tell even before I found out that you were a writer, just from the few articles I had found that I had gotten my hands on that you had published, and I was like, Oh, wow, this is phenomenal. But that’s just an aside. You had mentioned that you have bipolar disorder. The United States incarcerates more people and more women than any other country in the world. In recent years, the number of women in prison has grown, I think, by nearly double, nearly twice the rate of men. And I also read that statistics show that about three-quarters of women in prison have some sort of mental health challenge. Where women outside of prison, in the general population, it’s closer to around 5%. So from your experience: one, can you attest to this? And what are prisons doing to handle it? Did you receive proper treatment or medication when you were incarcerated?
Stacy: No. So, first, when I went to county jail, I was first in the psychiatric center. And I went directly from the psychiatric center to the county jail. So it had taken them a great deal of time to stabilize me at the psychiatric center and the medications I was on were not part of the jail formulary. So, as soon as I got to the jail, I was taken off all of those medications that were required to stabilize me. So that was the first time I really started to devolve behind bars. And then what was really ironic to me is that the head of the psychiatric services at the county jail where I was was also the psychiatrist who treated me when I was at the psychiatric center. So you would expect a good continuity of care there because it was the same physician and he saw the condition that I came into the psychiatric center and then he saw me capable of leaving the psychiatric center. There was nothing he could do. He could predict what the outcome of the situation was going to be for me, but the formulary was hard and fast and there was nothing that they could do about it.
Stacy: So the treatment that I received in the county jail was really horrific. He was able to get me an extra therapy session, so I got two therapy sessions a month instead of one, but that was the extent of what he was able to do for me. So as my case was going through the system, I really wasn’t able to participate in my defense. I really wasn’t able to communicate well. And my frame of mind was that I really didn’t care. I was just really excited at the idea that I could go to prison because I would have a real opportunity to kill myself. So whatever offer they gave me, I would take because it would get me out of that horrible place and I would have real opportunities to accomplish what my goal was at the time, which was to kill myself, essentially.
Ashley: I feel like that’s a time, as you’re going through your trial, where you need to be heightened in your sense of clarity and understanding of what’s going on. And it makes me feel like in some ways they were criminalizing your mental health issue by not providing the support that you needed. Do you find that jail is or prison is an adequate response to what you were experiencing?
Stacy: No. So after my—I’m not glad that I had this experience in the sense that it made my life complete. But what I am glad for is that it showed me how the rest of the world really works. Because I wasn’t particularly privileged; I came from rather humble beginnings. But I’m white, I had great health insurance. I had everything going for me. I had a wonderful income, I had, you know, my son’s father was amazing. And I had this easy baby to deal with. But I wasn’t able to get help because the people around me were benefitting from my illness because I was really free with my money, I was having a great time, I’m traveling. I mean, I’m manic. I think life is great. I have no real idea that my life is falling apart. So if it could happen to me with all of these resources…
Stacy: One day I was standing on the medication line, you bring your reusable cup that you fill with tap water from the sink that’s attached to your toiler, which I still am not quite over yet. But, anyway, you bring that cup down and then the medication nurse puts the pills in your hand and then you take a swig from your cup and then she checks your mouth and you go on your merry way. So that process takes a while because there were 48 women in the unit where I was in that county jail. And while I was on that line one day, I was like, ‘This line takes forever.’ And it occurred to me that it’s because out of those 48 women, literally 40 are on it, and then I realized I’m one of only 4 white people in a predominantly white county, right? And I know that I’m not totally wrapped, like I know I’m not okay. But I’m looking around thinking, This totally can’t be right. There’s something going on here. But all of my synapses aren’t really firing at that point. But it really showed me for the first time what really happens—who winds up in these places? How do women wind up in these places? And it really boils down to support, access to services, and then where, as a community, we’re allocating our resources.
Stacy: It is so much easier to just take a mentally ill Stacy and put her away somewhere so we don’t have to think about her. And now I’m invisible. Now it doesn’t even matter what garbage pills they’re trying to feed me in the county jail because there’s no one they’re accountable to. So there are a lot of women like me, when we wind up there, we’re not on the correct medication or they don’t want to give us anything that they deem addictive or something that might be able to get you high. So it really limits what they’re able to provide to you. You do not get the community standard of care when you’re in there. I believe that also contributes to higher conviction rates for women because we don’t have that support. We’re just kind of dangling in there and most of us do have mental health issues that need to be addressed.
Stacy: When I got to state prison, they did have better services, but, again, the formulary is very limited and you don’t get to choose your provider. I had one phenomenally great psychologist there, and then I got transferred to another facility and I did not like that man. He was disingenuous. I just—you know some people just don’t rub you the right way? He was one of those people. So I was like, I don’t really want you as my doctor. I really don’t. And I don’t want to talk to you. So then they wound up putting me in observation because I wouldn’t talk to the guy. And observation in prison back then was they strip you of everything: your clothes, you’re wearing a paper gown, and you don’t have socks and it’s very cold. You’re in a dirty cell surrounded in chicken wire and there’s someone right outside. And you have to ask them for toilet paper and they will ask you, Well what are you going to do? So you have to tell them what bodily function you’re about to do and they will dole out for you how many pieces of toilet paper they think you’re going to need. And you have to win the privilege of brushing your teeth. You have to be issued a toothbrush, you have to ask for a toothbrush. You don’t get soap. If you’re good, you get shower privileges and then you get to walk belly-chained and ankle-shackled to the shower and somebody watches you bathe. And you have to put your hand out—they’ll put the shampoo in your hand. So the whole process is extremely dehumanizing.
Stacy: So the first time I went there, it was really for punishment because I wouldn’t talk to them. And then I actually—this might be gross for some of your listeners—but I was on my cycle and there were no sanitary pads, so I wound up bleeding on myself. So it was all over that smock that I had. But I didn't have shower privileges, so I couldn’t go take a shower. And they don’t give you more underwear or anything in there. And so I was like, But, look! I mean this is really disgusting. So the guard says, Well just turn it inside out. And I’m thinking that’s even worse! How is that a solution? So that was the—I think that answers your question: do you get adequate mental health? The answer is no. So I completely disengaged in services and I spent a lot of time in solitary confinement. And a lot of the behavior—it was never for anything violent. It was because I didn’t abide by any of their rules, like helping people do their legal work. They got upset about that. And I went to solitary confinement several times and it made my prison stay longer because if you have a bad disciplinary, you’re not eligible for an earlier release. So I wound up doing extra time, I feel, because my mental health issues made it very challenging for me to comply with all of the rules that come with being in a prison.
Ashley: You said some listeners may think what you said is gross, but I’m glad that you did because it’s a truth-telling and I think many of us who are not familiar with what goes on in prison need to hear it. I can’t even take in how degrading that must feel as a human being to face that. And I think, if you’re coming in with mental health challenges, how do they expect you to heal? But even if you’re not, if you’re coming in without any of that extra baggage, I don’t know how you leave feeling whole and supported and nourished. And I feel like that’s one way to help people—it’s why people end up in prison. If we nourished them in time, like I—you know where I’m going with this.
Ashley: I did want to ask you, I guess, about hope a little bit and that sense of almost—that experience takes away meaning from you or a sense of purpose in your life. You had said that without Max Kenner and BPI, you would have “rotted in a prison cell.” And, like you said, when you first went to county jail and eventually state prison, you were a mom of a young son and not having access to him, not getting to hold him, and maybe not even knowing where he was. Before you started that education while incarcerated, what does that do to your sense of hope and meaning as a human?
Stacy: So when I was admitted to the county jail, I was actually still breastfeeding. And I remember being in the shower one day and I, even though I was in the mental institution, they were very careful about the medications they gave me with the assumption that, when I am reunited with my son, the first thing he’s going to want to do is breastfeed. At that point, it was like comfort nursing, he wasn’t nursing for nourishment. He was a little bit older for that. But that was part of the reunification that they had in mind for me. So we were very careful to make sure that would still be available for my son because it was a comfort thing for him. And I just remember standing there in the shower and looking down and realizing—I mean, my breasts were full and they hurt and they really needed to be expressed, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Stacy: And it just made me think, Wow, this is how my son stops breastfeeding because mom’s in jail. And there’s nothing that feels worse that realizing you have just taken something away from your child that was meaningful to them. You know, he didn’t have a pacifier. He didn’t have a security blanket because we were always together. So it was just representative for me that this era was over and I had no idea what was in store my son. But it reinforced in my mind, which is already fragmented, that he doesn’t need me anymore. What am I good for? How am I going to repair this? This is hugely damaging. It really starts that spiral of what is the point of any of this? Because whatever I’m going through, whatever suffering I might feel, even physically from the separation—in my case, there was a physical pain that went with it just because my body was doing what it was programed to do to care for my child, but then it was, you know, what is this doing to him? I’m going to get through this okay. But one day he wakes up and mom’s in the funny farm and then he doesn’t see her for however long. And, at that point, we had no idea how long it would take before we were reunited. But we knew that, by the time it happened, breastfeeding would not be on the table for sure.
Stacy: So it really forces you to really consider what your identity is. I’m no longer a caring, nurturing mom. I’m no longer a writer. I’m no longer a lot of things that formed the foundation of my identity. And, now, I am cleaning floors. And I am cleaning up after people who are sick because there’s a lot of cycling through county jails and many people have addiction issues and they’re not properly supported while they’re detoxing. They’re basically put in a room and they’re—it’s very unpleasant to hear, to watch. It’s horrible. And someone has to clean up after them because they’re physically unable to clean up their space. And that’s what I’m doing. This is what I am now. I clean up after people and think about ways I can kill myself. And that became my identity for a really long time.
Ashley: When you’re in a space like, is there space for you to process grief when you’re in county jail, when you go to prison? I guess—yeah, I’ll just leave it there: how do you handle your grief?
Stacy: So to compound all of this, about 6 months into my stay at county jail, my mother died. I found out about it by reading the newspaper. I read her obituary. That’s how I found out that my mom died. And it doesn’t seem real, but the people around me, the women around me, even people that we didn’t see eye-to-eye, we didn’t talk or have relationships or whatever. They all got together, they made me a card, and I really felt like I had a family for the first time in a very long time. And, so, there’s grief everyday. Just getting up from a mattress that’s the—well, you’re a yoga instructor, you know what your yoga mat is like. Imagine sleeping on one, because that’s pretty much what our mattresses are like, they’re like yoga mats. So you’re already not feeling very good about yourself.
Stacy: Every day, you’re grieving something. You grieve a pillow. You grieve not having a nourishing meal. You grieve not being able to go and pick a flower if you want to. My feet didn’t feel anything but concrete for, like, 8 months. You grieve all kinds of things everyday until that loss just becomes a part of you and you don’t think about it anymore. But it’s all waiting for you when you come home. I did miss my mom, I knew that she was dead, but it didn’t really hit me until I came home—now, I can’t go over to my mom’s house. I’m not going to pick her up, we’re not going to go get ice cream or whatever it is that she wants to do. And those things, when you come home, you think you’re going to go back to the life you had and it’s not the life that you left for many reasons.
Stacy: But, in my case, including the fact that my mom died. So processing grief is often delayed because it’s survival. I don’t have time to pity myself that I don’t have a pillow or that my mattress is pretty much nonexistent. Because I just have to focus that energy on surviving to the next day. And not necessarily surviving like someone’s going to knife me in the shower because everyone thinks about that part of survival, it’s not. It’s a mental game when I talk about survival in prison. The threat of bodily harm in the female facilities that I’ve been in, and I’ve been in a total of, I think, seven throughout my prison career, I’ve never once felt physically afraid. And that’s not uncommon. Or I should say I’ve never been physically afraid of other people in prison, other prisoners. If I ever felt afraid, it was always because of what an officer might do. Even if it wasn’t a physical threat, they have a lot of power over you. Like I said, I got all those tickets and disciplinaries that, in the real world, are nice things, you help people. And I am punished because I don’t want these people to have to suffer. So you grieve those kinds of things. Like I can’t have a normal existence in here because it’s just—the rules are really prohibitive. Everything is taken from you—food. You know, our rituals, our cultural significance associated with food. Now, if you can get a ring ding, it’s like a really good day, right? In the real world, who wants a ring ding?
Ashley: You mentioned survival as a mental game, not necessarily physical, bodily harm. And as you were talking, you had mentioned I’m a yoga teacher, and I kept thinking “heart chakra, heart space.” I don’t know how you carried—that sort of survival, where you have to protect your heart. And obviously it’s a mental game, too, to figure out how to navigate all of this where, I’m sure, there’s chaos and confusion and rules aren’t always the same. But, oh, yeah, I just felt it in my heart as you were talking. What brings you to the point, then, when you eventually learn that Bard Prison Initiative is a thing and that you can apply for it—what sort of pulls you out of all this grief and I guess confusion and sense of scattering and be like, I want to apply for this and maybe this is something I should pursue?
Stacy: So my first prison bid was between 2008 and 2013 and I had attempted to attend college while I was in there. In my sentencing minutes, when I’m talking to the judge, I’m like I’m going to go and I’m going to get an education. I’m going to make this time count. Five years, I’m going to come out with a bachelors. That was the frame of mind that I had. If I’m not thinking about ways that I can off myself when I get there, then the college thing, at least I’ll have something to show for it. And because of my age, I wasn’t…well, first I applied at Bedford. Bedford had Marymount University. I applied, I was accepted. Then I got transferred to another facility before classes started. So then I get to that facility, and that facility only had college for people under the age of 24 and I was too old for that. I didn’t qualify for the youth grant, so I couldn’t get any college while I was there. So it’s a complete and utter waste of my time.
Stacy: When they did open it up, I was only able to take one class because my disciplinary history was weighed into the decision of whether I was even eligible to apply. The prison made the determination of who got into college. The college itself didn’t really have a lot of say in terms of who gets to apply. The prison decided. The institution that would be matriculating you didn’t get to decide. So I got filtered because of my disciplinary. I wasn’t worthy of education when they did open it up for older potential students. So then I came home and I knew about the Bard Prison Initiative because they offered it at Bayview at the time for women. And I couldn’t get transferred to Bayview. I wrote to Albany, I tried to get there, I wrote to Bard. Bard was like, Hey, if you get to Bayview, apply. But I never made it there. So I didn’t have that opportunity.
Stacy: So I knew about it and I knew that it was a big deal, but it wasn’t available to me because I couldn’t get to the facility that offered it. So then when I came home, coincidentally, people that I had met along my—you know, now I’m doing some advocacy work because a lot of stuff that’s going on in prisons is no good and people need to know—and I couldn’t get into college because I had to check off the felony box that used to be on the applications for all colleges in New York. So getting an education just felt like it would never happen for me.
Stacy: Then when I wound up back in prison in 2017, and I went to prison in Taconic, Bard was there. So I applied as soon as it was made available and it’s highly, highly competitive. The visiting room was full, like, the visiting room is never full in a women’s facility. You go to a visiting room in a male facility, and there’s like a line to get in. And in a women’s facility, unless it’s Mother’s Day, there’s no line. So to see the visiting room full, I was like I don’t think I’m going to make it. This competition is fierce. It’s like a real thing. And what sets Bard Prison Initiative apart is they really look at the academic potential. The jail doesn’t tell them that this person can’t go because they don’t tow the line for us; Bard makes the decision. Do we see something in this person that maybe we can dig deep and pull it out? It’s like you’re applying to a real college. It’s really competitive and I’m getting teary-eyed now. I was working in the general library at that point, so it was a good job to have. It was really, really hot in the summer, people want to get out of there, but if it’s that or scrubbing the floor, I’m totally happy to work in the library, even if it’s 100 degrees in there.
Stacy: I remember just like, Did they make the decisions yet? I would go talk to the people who were already in Bard: “Do you know anything? Did I get in?” And then when those envelopes were delivered during the mail call, oh my gosh! So many people in my unit had applied and a couple on my unit, I think like 8 people on my unit had applied, and every one who had gotten in, I’m like that’s one less spot for me. That’s one less spot for me. And then my heart was sad when people didn’t get in, but I’m like that’s one more spot for me. And it took me so long to open that envelope because I felt like there was so much in that envelope that was more than that piece of paper. And somewhere—well, not somewhere, I know exactly where it is—I have that letter and you can see on it where the ink is smudged where my tears were on the paper because I just felt like there was something for me now. Somebody sees that I’m worthy of investment, that I can do this and I’m in Bard. And this is before College Behind Bars came out. I mean, this is a couple years before it was released, so I didn’t even have the gravity of that to live up to, but it was clear from the very beginning that there are significant expectations for us if we accept that challenge.
Stacy: And accepting that challenge was probably the easiest and yet most difficult choice. Because now I had to put up or shut up, right? Now I have to really—like I’m joining a new community and these people are all achievers and that’s a lot of weight. And when you’re sitting in a prison uniform, with guards watching you as you have your cohort meet-and-greet for the first time with your professors and stuff, it’s like how am I—what am I? How am I going to do this? How am I going to go to school behind razor wire? How am I going to accomplish this? And I hope that I can live up to whatever the expectations are. Because the expectations Bard set are very high.
Ashley: For people who don’t know and haven’t seen the documentary or learned more about this, can you tell us a little more about what BPI is? So it’s privately funded. Can you talk about who’s coming in to teach, what the classroom experience is like, anything you want to share about your experience and more generally what the program is?
Stacy: Our professors come from, oh my goodness! Like Bard has amazing professors. Several of my professors taught at Ivy League schools. They came from Columbia, they came from Yale. I mean, the quality of that education is phenomenal. And the people who are teaching us, you can tell, it’s not about the money—they do not care. Well, I’m sure they care about the money but it’s not—that’s not their motivation. And they really don’t even see that we’re in this green outfit with like a name tag. Sometimes it feels like you’re at summer camp, you know, because everyone’s got the same shirt and you’ve got your name tag that, like, your mom would iron on to it. So you’ve got this big name tag ironed onto your shirt, your shirt pocket. But they don’t see that. It doesn’t bear any weight with our professors. They’re there because they believe that we can do something with ourselves. That wherever we are right now doesn’t matter. We’re going places. And it’s not just the yard at 8 o’clock. They really prepare us for what is happening when we come home. Because for those three hours that we’re in that classroom with that professor, we’re not really sitting in prison. We are in a college classroom.
Stacy: Okay, we have a chalkboard. We don’t have any fancy stuff in there because, you know, it’s prison. But the books are amazing. Just having the books, the whole world can come to you in a book. And the library that we have at Bard in that classroom is amazing and if there’s material that we want, we just have to ask for it and they’ll bring it to us. It’s like really amazing, we’re not in prison. Sometimes you forget that this is not a traditional classroom because the free exchange of ideas that doesn’t happen anywhere else on that compound, it’s happening in that room. For those three hours, I never felt like I was in prison in college. I was a college student for those 3 hours of that class.
Ashley: For anyone that doesn’t know, Bard College is a real college, so what you’re getting through the Bard Prison Initiative is a real college program, you’re getting a real degree. These are not watered down classes. I just want to be clear on that. What I love—you talked about how there was a free exchange of ideas, and I think from me just watching the documentary—again, not getting to live this—I really appreciated the curiosity of the students, the dedication. Like you’re talking about this with tears in your eyes, like you are so grateful for it. And it almost made me sad looking back on my own college experience, how I didn’t realize how revolutionary it is to get an education, how sacred it is. When you’re 22 and you go to college and I came from more privilege, it was just a thing that of course I was going to do. I didn’t appreciate it in the same way. So I just, I really liked seeing grown people taking these classes in a new way. And I feel like perhaps you got something beyond it, like from life not just from a book, that you discovered more of who you are in it.
Stacy: Yeah, some of my professors, I’d be like, why didn’t I do this when I was 20? Like what happened? Why didn’t I do this when I was 20? And they were like, you know what, some of our adult students, they have more perspective because they’ve lived a little bit and it means something different when it’s something like the 13th grade versus something like you have to go back and dig deep and choose it as opposed to it just being chosen for you by virtue of where you came from.
Stacy: So, making that choice—that’s why I was saying it was the easiest and yet the most difficult because I knew that this was, it wasn’t just a new chapter. This was a new book for me. It wasn’t a continuation; this was a new beginning. And I started to think about what else I could do when I came home. And taking one of those classes, I discovered public health. And I was really struck because I’m not a dumb person, like I know a lot of stuff, but by going to Bard, I was able to string those things together in new ways that made sense. So it wasn’t just disparate bits of information anymore; I can synthesize information now. I can think about things critically. I can analyze things in a new way, and that was all new for me at forty-something.
Stacy: So when I was in that class thinking about public health, up until that point, I thought public health was just like nurses who made sure poor kids got their vaccines. That’s what I thought public health was, like I am not into public health at all. But then one of our professors from Columbia was talking and I started to think about public health in a slightly different way. Like, you know, it’s really not fair that kids in public housing have lead problems, because then they have brain problems. That’s a health thing, but it’s really a community thing. Like we as a community have decided that these are throwaway kids because we don’t care. There are all these rules about lead, but who’s enforcing them? And the rules are only good if you know about them. I mean, if you’re struggling—and I’m making assumptions here. But I’m assuming if you’re living in a NYCHA building, that you have other pressing issues going on in your life, that your resources are limited. Going to go talk to somebody about all these—is this a lead paint problem? Like you don’t have the bandwidth for that because there’s so much other energy that just gets zapped by the tasks associated with daily living to take care of yourself and your family. It’s not an urgent need right now if, you know, little Johnny is licking paint chips off the floor. The implications for that aren’t going to be known for years, but if I don’t go to work right now and make some money, no one’s going to eat tonight. So it becomes a priority thing. And then you make it a low priority, so no one’s yelling at City Hall, like get the lead out of these buildings.
Stacy: So I started thinking, like, that’s really unfair. And who’s living in these places? It’s not people who look like me. That’s not fair. Like that’s really not okay. And, so, this isn’t a lie. So I’m thinking about public health in a slightly different way. The class that I was taking, by the way, was Urban Planning. And that got me thinking about all this stuff.
Stacy: So I was in my cell at night and I was listening to the Andy Cohen—well, no, I was flipping through the radio, my little, actually it wasn’t flipping it was scrolling because they’re, like, ancient, you know, you get the idea. So I’m flipping through the radio and I think I hear BPI and I’m like, I’m totally hallucinating. Like I did a lot of homework that night and I’m like I’m totally hallucinating. And then I go back through and then I hear Bard. And I’m like, No, I can’t be hallucinating this twice. So I zoom in and it was the Andy Cohen show.
Stacy: And it was Dr. Bob Fullilove from Columbia University and he said public health is really where the new civil rights movement is being fought, and I was like, that’s where I need to be. It was a like a super easy choice for me and he just put it so succinctly. And then I was like, I’m going to stalk Dr. Bob. And it turned out that Dr. Bob was already affiliated with BPI, so it was very easy to stalk Dr. Bob. And that—it just felt like independent verification that this is where I need to be. It just really resonated in a new way. And then I was like, Why are they talking about Bard on the Andy Cohen show, like how does that even happen? And that’s when it started to click that, Stacy, you really joined something a lot bigger than just you. And I thought about what community I was a part of now and I could really make a difference in people’s lives if I go into public health. There’s room for public health, for everybody in public health. They need us in public health because we see problems from a different way.
Stacy: I mean, if I had gone to the 13th grade and gone through, even if I had gotten the same education, I’m not the same person that I am at 40 than I am at 20, so what I get out of it is very different. And I’m much more—I’m acutely aware of time. We all have a finite amount of time here. So when you’re 20 and you see like, you know, you’ve got all that time in front of you. But, now, I’ve got a different view of time because A) I’ve done time and B) I’m older. So I think if I’m going to do something with my life, now is the time. So Bard just made it front and center and got me thinking about all of these things and what it is that I really want to do. And what’s going to be meaningful. And now I also have this kid and he’s seeing mom in and out of facilities, whether they’re mental institutions or jails or prions. It was really sad when I went back in 2017 that my son was like, I’m going to—I’m just going to wait to go visit you in prison because visiting in county jail is just awful. And I’m like it’s so sad that my kid knows this. But there are literally millions of kids all across our country who know that, who shouldn’t know that. But they do. And that implication that I’m doing something meaningful, that mom isn’t just this screw up who goes in and out of jail and in and out of the funny farm and sometimes takes her meds.
Stacy: Oh—and that’s another thing. Since Bard I am faithful to my medication in a way I have never been faithful to my medication my whole life because the stakes are much higher. And, again, I think I have much better critical thinking skills, I’m much more aware of myself, my symptoms, I’m able to balance. And I’ll tell people no because I put my mental health first. It’s like the oxygen mask on the plane, right? If I’m not okay I can’t do anything for you so, you know, no, I’m not doing that because it’s not good for me. And I never would have said that before. I would have been like, Yeah, okay, we’ll figure it out. And three days later, I’m waking up at the psych center. So, I feel like Bard put all those things in my path. Like I might have had a lot of these tools to begin with, but I didn’t know how to use them. But when you have to write a 15-page paper from prison, you learn resourcefulness. You learn time management. You learn all sorts of things that just make you better able to function when you come home.
Ashley: Mmm, yeah. I love that. I’m thinking about: this was an exceptional opportunity that you had because Bard is not only in just New York state at this point, I think, but only in certain prisons within New York state. I mean, there have been things going on with Pell grants, but 25 years ago, essentially, funding was gutted—government funding for education was gutted. And it doesn’t make sense to me because you’ve talked about, on so many levels, this has changed you and grown you. You have come out faithful to your medication which makes you a more present parent, which makes you able to advocate. Like you’ve pulled all these parts of yourself together, all your gifts, and you’re able to harness them.
Ashley: And I also know the recidivism rate with a program like BPI drops dramatically from around 40% to, I think, around 4%. I mean, if that doesn’t speak volumes, I don’t know what else does. So why are politicians hesitant to provide government funding for a program that clearly works far better than prison alone?
Stacy: So prison didn’t help me, Bard helped me. I’m very up front and clear about that. So with the 1994 Crime Bill, that’s when Max Kenner was like—I mean, he’s like a Bard College student himself, right? So he’s like, Why are they doing this? This isn’t cool? And being, I’m guessing just because he’s young, I never talked to him about it expressly—when you’re young you think that all kinds of things are possible, right? So you don’t know that the odds are stacked against you, you just plow forward because that’s what we do when we change the world and we don’t realize we’re changing the world. But, anyway, so Max Kenner’s response to the 1994 Crime Bill is what changed my life. If not for that 1994 Crime Bill, there would have been no Bard Prison Initiative and sometimes I feel so guilty when I think about the tens of thousands of people who could have gotten an education if they did not discontinue Pell funding for it. Because, you know, the states followed suit and, so, college in prison really dried up after that. And so if there was no 1994 Crime Bill that diminished opportunity for people, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity. That’s a little bit trippy, right, to get your mind around?
Stacy: So the really selfish part of Stacy feels so great about the 1994 Crime Bill because look at what it did for me. But look at how much damage it did for tens of thousands of people and communities and families. So because this opportunity is—we also have to kind of go back to 1994 when crime’s out of control and we’ve got, you know, we’re coming off the heels of the Reagan era. We’ve got all kinds of stuff socially going on and we also had the recession and a lot of people lost their jobs and made college less affordable for their kids and oh, look, these people in prison, they did all this bad stuff and now, look, we’re going to give them an education? I can’t afford to give my kids an education, how come I’m spending all this money, all my tax dollars, so this miscreant can get an education? And, politically, that is very powerful and people at that time, when the Crime Bill passed, they were hurting. People really didn’t have another dollar and, so, the idea of giving that dollar to someone who may have been convicted of an offense, it was a tough sell.
Stacy: So it was an easy way, I think, to placate the public like, Hey, look, we’re saving your tax dollars and we’re doing the right thing. And I think at that moment, it really solidified the elitist nature of higher education. Who is good enough for higher education, you know? If you stop, I mean, if you’re caught speeding, that doesn’t make you ineligible for education. If you write a bad check, you’re ineligible for education. That doesn’t make sense to me. When you’re spoon-feeding the masses, it totally makes sense. We’re not going to spend any money on them. The implication is there’s going to be more money for your kids.
Stacy: Fast forward a quarter century, and we realize by discontinuing that we actually harmed more people because now the recidivism rate is through the roof and now it’s costing us billions of dollars to lock people up. And, guess what, there’s less money for your kid. We can’t fund education for your 5-year-old because we just had to hire, like, a hundred more corrections officers, right? Three-quarters of the cost of someone in prison isn’t to sustain the life of that person. It’s to pay for the staff to go in there. Isn’t that crazy? So you become a commodity. But people on the outside don’t realize the cost to them in the forms of not only how much money it takes, but what it takes away from them. If there’s less money for education, that means your kid doesn’t get an enrichment activity. It means they cut music, they cut art. Those are like the first things to go and they are so critical to the development of people and helping them figure out how to navigate life.
Stacy: People who can’t express themselves verbally, they might be able to paint a picture. So we’re going to take their paintbrushes away because, you know, it’s more important that we, you know, lock up a single mom who wrote a bad check—because that stuff really does happen. So it was really crazy. And then it just became part of who we are. It’s just what we do. You go to jail, you do your time, and you come home.
Stacy: And re-entry isn’t really about re-acclimating people to life out here. Re-entry is really about undoing the trauma of being in prison. Undoing the trauma of being forced, you know, to be in your own menstrual blood. Someone thought that that was perfectly okay. And, you know what, if the feeling is you’re not good enough for a whole bunch of things, you know, it’s not really that big a deal. You know how many times I have heard, Well if you don’t like it, don’t go to jail? I mean, okay, so I didn’t really sign up for that. And I truly didn’t sign up for this. And so when you come home, your standards are pretty low. It shouldn’t just be I’m just so grateful to be out of that place. Like what am I looking forward to? And, so, Bard kind of reframes the conversation into this is temporary, like don’t get your head caught up in what’s happening right now. And they keep us focused on what happens next. And they constantly remind us that we made an investment—it’s not in a patriarchal way. It’s not like, Well look what we’re doing for you, now you have to do great stuff. But you feel it. You know, I’m capable of doing these things and it’s going to disappoint a lot of people if I don’t at least try.
Stacy: So when you come home you’ve joined this network. You know how many alum there are of us out here now? It’s, like, crazy. And so if I need something, I can call someone in my network and ask them a question or ask them for support: how would you handle this? Or I’m working on something and I hear that you’re really good at whatever, can you help me with this? And those aren’t the kinds of people that were in my life before. And because we all have come from kind of like the same place, we automatically have a bond. Because we understand not only this mantle that’s been bestowed upon us, but we also worked hard for. It’s also we’re accountable to each other and if I’m out here doing dumb stuff, it looks really bad for the other people who are doing amazingly great stuff, right? So no one wants to be the reason that that statistic goes to 5% instead of 4%, right? So we’re really on our Ps and Qs because we don’t want to be that one that makes everybody else look bad.
Ashley: I love hearing about that sense of community and holding each other accountable and what you all have created individually and collectively. Just to amplify one of the things that you said: so Dyjuan Tatro, who perhaps you know is a BPI grad, he tweeted something recently—
Stacy: He tweets all the time. I love him!
Ashley: I mean I don’t know him, but I love his tweets. And I think you actually retweeted this. But, again, that was my Twitter rabbit hole that I’ve gone down. But he said: “There are more prisons & jails in the United States than public colleges and universities. The United States spends more $$$ on incarceration each year than is would cost to make every public college & university tuition-free. It’s never about the $$$; it’s about priorities.”
Ashley: And I feel like that’s what you were speaking to—that, by not reimagining the criminal legal system, by not reimagining how we deal with people who have committed crimes, it’s, you know, everyone’s being affected. But I don’t want to go on too long, I’ve taken up so much of your time already. The last thing, and I could just keep going, I just love hearing from you. So the last thing I want to ask is what are you up to now? Anything you want to share about what you’re doing?
Stacy: Gosh, so, first, I help women with criminal justice involvement get into college. And it feels amazing. College changed my life. It may not be the answer for everybody, but I feel that the value of the work that College & Community Fellowship does, we’re not going to really see it for a generation. You know, when someone is more stable, they’ve got more tools, they’ve got instructions on how to use those tools and, then, they’re in a position where their kids now are getting ready to go to college. That’s how we build healthy, strong, resilient communities.
Stacy: So I feel like when I’m working with a woman to help her further her education, I’m really working for her grandchildren, and I keep that in my mind as I’m like, What is it that you really want to do? The best part of that facet of my life is that moment. Because when you’re beaten down for so long and you’re basically told that you’re worthless and that there’s all these things that you can’t do, the short answer, You don’t like it, don’t go to jail, right? That colors your entire existence. So when someone tells you that you can’t be a nurse because you have a felony conviction, you accept it because, already, it comes with it. The collateral consequences of prison are way worse than actual prison. At least, that’s my experience. So when you say, wow, wow, wait, back up, why do you think you can’t be a nurse? Well because I have a felony. You can totally be a nurse! We can totally—is it a straight line? No. But if you want to do it, we can totally make you a nurse.
Stacy: And that minute when their world reopens to them, they see possibilities for themselves, that’s when I feel like my work is done. I won’t see the value of it for 20 years, you know, god willing. But they are, you know, that moment when they make the connection that they can build the future that they want for themselves, that’s what I do that gives the most meaning to my life.
Stacy: The other thing that I do, which is a direct of consequence of Bard, is I actually investigate Covid outbreaks in schools. So if there’s an outbreak in a school, I have 3 hours to try to figure out if it’s community-acquired transmission, if it’s—there’s a clear chain of transmission. Do we have to close the school? Do we, you know, those types of things, I make those kinds of recommendations.
Stacy: And, so, it just feels really good to think that there are thousands of people who’ve—my work has helped keep them safe. The education I received at Bard has already paid dividends to the community. Any harm that I may have done, which I didn’t intend to go out and harm people, I really was not in my right mind when I was writing bad checks and stuff or giving people checks and letting them go buy whatever they wanted. It wasn’t my intent to hurt people. Doesn’t mean that people didn’t get hurt, but that was never my intent. But any harm that I might have caused, it just feels really good to be building community, helping people. Keeping people safe in this era of Covid is a real challenge, sometimes it’s a real fight and getting people to talk to me so that I can figure out what’s happening and what we need to do to move forward. I’m really good at that job and I feel that a good portion of it is because of my experience.
Stacy: And sometimes people will get very upset, like, you know, this kid has symptoms for a week and mom kept sending him to school. They’re really judgy. I know judgy isn’t a real word, but I love that word. So they were like super judgy and, so, they don’t get anything. They don’t get anything because after that, I’m pretty sure their whole tone and tenor changed. Because that’s a really irresponsible thing in this era to do. So I call the lady back and then I think just because of the experience that I had, I’m much more empathetic than I may otherwise be. See, we don’t all come home hardened criminals. It does really—with education, it definitely makes us able to see a broader picture.
Stacy: Turns out, this lady is a single mom. She cleans houses. If she doesn’t go to work, her kids don’t eat. And her kid really wasn’t that sick. And so it’s really hard for her to care about her neighbor’s kids or the other kids on the school bus if her ability to feed that kid is directly impacted to whether she works or not. So rather than blame mom for creating a super spreader event, how about we say, Mom, I’m really sorry that you had to make this choice and it’s really crappy that society’s structured in a way that we can’t take time off to take care of our sick kids and keep our neighbors safe. Because if I can’t take care of my kid, I have a really hard time caring about your kid. So when you frame it that way—and then she was perfectly candid and I’m like, you know, I’m really sorry. Like I’m genuinely sorry, I feel so bad for these people. I have kids that have gone to school because they don’t have internet access at home and those are the kids that are exposed—but they get it because they had to take this additional risk to try to get an education while, you know, kids like mine get to stay home and stay remote because for us it’s just a thing. For these kids it’s a luxury. Nobody should be at risk to get sick because they don’t have the things that they need to get their education.
Stacy: So it’s really made me look at things structurally in a different way and it makes me better able to understand the plight of these people so that we can really help them and figure out what we need to do. And a lot of things are really horrible about this pandemic, but I’m hopeful that we’re going to be able to leverage public health to build a safer, more just society for everybody when we come out of it on the other side.
Ashley: Stacy, you are a delight. You’re uniting intelligence with compassion and I feel like you are a perfect example of what an exceptional opportunity like an education can do for someone—and that it shouldn’t be an exceptional opportunity. It should be more widely available to everyone. Thank you for sharing, for your vulnerability, for your truth-telling. Just for being who you are and the work that you’re doing in the world. I’m so grateful you joined me.
Stacy: I’m so happy that you invited me. All the best to you.
Ashley: If you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to stream College Behind Bars on Netflix or Amazon Prime. It will transform the way you think about education, the way you think about people in prison, and who’s worthy of higher education. You can check out the Bard Prison Initiative at bpi.bard.edu or follow Stacy on Twitter @StacyLynBurnet2. I’ll have links in the show notes.
Ashley: I’m grateful for your time and attention. Till next time, stay curious!