How the Bard Prison Initiative Set Me Free

April 16, 2014

Before I was accepted into the Bard Prison Initiative, something was terribly wrong with my life, my attitude, and my decision-making. I was lost. I grew up poor in the Bronx. Drugs, violence and poverty were prevalent factors not only in my household, but also in my neighborhood, in the schools I attended and my community. Violence and abuse were all I knew. As a teenager, I left my home in an attempt to get away from the violence and drugs and turned to the streets. Ironically, on the streets I became immersed in the very things from which I was trying to escape.

It’s a bitter irony to admit that through imprisonment the world was opened up to me. When I came to prison, I was a high school dropout, without any hope or knowledge. Then Bard College stepped in and offered a meaningful opportunity for change. Together we created a community around the college in the most unlikely of places, surpassing even our own expectations, becoming model prisoners, and making our families proud. For the first time in my life there was promise.

I was hungry to learn and to contribute. A college education offered me a way out from my own ignorance; it woke me and helped me cope through prison life; it’s what offered an escape from all the confusion, ignorance, and violence that I was caught up in and an opportunity to give back to my community in a positive way. After becoming learned through being exposed to great literature and professors, and learning about myself through the education I received—about the crime I committed, and about society and humanity at large—I had an awakening of sorts. For the first time in my life, I was free. I could think. I could be brave. I felt true remorse for my crime. It was then that I sought and wanted true change in myself and the world.

And change I did. I reflected upon myself, upon my crime, and upon society. Reading, writing, and the acquisition of language and composition skills through the Bard Prison Initiative enabled me to transform emotion into action. BPI changed my life dramatically by providing a path through which I have been able to express myself effectively with words.

Today I am establishing my career as a playwright and recently completed a fellowship through the Public Theater’s Emerging Playwrights program. My writing focuses on issues related to incarceration, bringing together victims, their families, and the formerly incarcerated to engage in dialogue through theater. I am also working for a non-profit organization providing reentry support for the formerly incarcerated.

We say that we’re the best nation on earth, and I believe we are. But we need to take a hard look at how our country treats the “lowliest” amongst us. By providing a true quality education in prison, you are enabling prisoners to think critically and giving them the opportunity to acquire the tools for success. I want New York State to be an example of what is possible for the criminal justice system and what can be achieved when we create that opportunity for change.

Manuel Borras Olivera is a writer from The Bronx.  He is currently working on a play called “Starting Over: Coming Home” about the difficulties prisoners and families face upon reentry.  

Photo: Manuel Borras at LIVE LAW 2 in Brooklyn in November 2013.