Giovannie Hernandez, guest speaker, shares his experience going to college through the Bard Prison Initiative while in prison, over Zoom on Sept. 23, 2020. He was incarcerated for over 11 years after a fatal street fight in 2005.

At just 16 years old, Giovannie Hernandez was arrested in a fatal street fight in March of 2005. He was incarcerated for 11 years and six months at New York’s Eastern correctional facility. Fortunately, he was able to attend Bard College through the Bard Prison Initiative.

Hernandez spoke to campus about his experiences to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month in September.  He spoke over Zoom to 38 attendees, which was facilitated by Teresa Taylor Williams, Director of Student Diversity Programs.

Hernandez was featured in the four-part documentary film “College Behind Bars” which shared the stories incarcerated men and woman earning college degrees through BPI.

“I was just so fortunate and blessed that my story happens to have fitted well with the other narratives (the producers) found inspiring,” Hernandez said.

He expressed gratitude and appreciation to share his story in the film and to have a positive impact on people.

“For me, it was about the opportunity to change the narrative about people who are incarcerated and to show what programs like BPI are doing,” Hernandez shared.

Attendees sent in questions over the Zoom chat for Williams to read out loud to Hernandez to answer. They asked Hernandez about what college was like, support and transition from prison to freedom.

BPI showed Hernandez the potential in himself that he did not see before he was incarcerated. He valued information he learned and provided him with knowledge about himself as a person. Hernandez expressed how passionate he became about learning.

He expressed how thankful he was for the support his family gave him in prison.

“For Latinos, and even for other minorities, family is important,” Hernandez said. “Sometimes family is all we have. We do not have access to wealth, we do not have access to privilege, but we do have access to each other.”

When he was released from prison, the first thing he did was get breakfast with his sister.

“The entire day was surreal,” Hernandez expressed. “I was afraid to go to sleep because the fear for me was that I would wake up and it would all be a dream.”

For the first couple of weeks from being released, he shared that he had a hard time falling asleep at night. He was in a constant fear that his life free from prison was just a dream – he did not want to wake up back in prison.

“It was amazing,” he said. “To just sit down and feel like a human being again.”

Due to the ongoing novel coronavirus, Hernandez is currently unemployed. He said he wants to go back to school to study computer science.

Toward the end of the Zoom call, Williams expressed appreciation for Hernandez and the audience attending. In return, Hernandez thanked Williams for having him share his thoughts and experiences during his time in prison.

The four-part documentary of “College Behind Bars” can be watched at https://www.pbs.org/show/college-behind-bars/.

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