Film and TV

First Degree at Sie FilmCenter Explores Rare Prison Education Program

Here's a sobering statistic: Two out of three prisoners in the United States never got a high-school diploma. The role of education, or lack of same, in a person's eventual incarceration has been the subject of much hand-wringing over the years, but a new documentary looks at a program that is actually trying to do something about the problem.

Producer and director Roger Weisberg's First Degree tracks the progress of three inmates at New York's Sing Sing prison as they pursue college degrees. Such degrees have long been out of reach for most inmates, ever since they were denied eligibility for Pell Grants in the 1990s, but modest forays back into college classes behind bars have shown encouraging results. As the film producers put it: "Nationwide, over half of released inmates return to prison within five years, but for the past fourteen years, less than 1 percent of the inmates that received a college degree at Sing Sing returned to prison."

The film about this remarkable turnabout screens Thursday, December 1, starting at 6 p.m. at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue. It's a special screening to benefit Words Beyond Bars, a worthy volunteer effort that takes works of literature inside Colorado's prisons and challenges inmates to examine their own lives as well as those in the books they're reading; see our 2013 feature "The Lifers Book Club" for more on the organization.

The $30 admission includes a cocktail and light appetizer reception as well as a panel discussion after the film featuring University of Colorado Denver professor Stephen Hartnett (editor of Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex), Second Chance Center executive director Hassan Latif, and state senator Evie Hudak.

Go to the Denver Film Society website to check out a clip from the film. For more information, call 720-381-0813.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast