Exposing Hard Truths About Life in Prison

April 11, 2019

Filmmaker Nandini Sikand (Ph.D. '10, Anthropology) applies her Graduate Center training to change the conversation about the criminal justice system.

Prof-Nandinthi-Sikand faculty photo

Nandini Sikand (Ph.D. '10, Athropology). Photo by Andy Smith.

Eight years ago, Nandini Sikand (Ph.D. ’10, Anthropology) met a woman who taught in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, in which traditional or “outside” college students come into a jail or prison to take a semester-long course with students who are incarcerated.
Sikand, who is an associate professor of film and media studies at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, was so intrigued that she audited a course and completed the exchange program training herself. She immersed herself in the lives of the women at Northampton County Jail, and the challenges they faced in their inside and outside worlds. She also examined the many contributing factors that led them there, including poverty, drug addiction, abuse, and family histories of incarceration, and engaged with the social workers and corrections officials who revealed little-seen aspects of the criminal justice system.
All of this work resulted in the release this year of Sikand’s latest film, Inside/Outside. The feature-length documentary tells the story of about a dozen women incarcerated at Northampton County Jail, interspersed with statistics about the United States prison industrial system, which tell a disturbing story about how the country treats its most vulnerable members.
Her work is a direct result of her training at The Graduate Center, says Sikand, who this year was named one of the two winners of the Graduate of the Last Decade Award (GOLD) award. “I’m an anthropologist,” she says. “We’re trained in participant observation. Typically a documentarian goes in, shoots, and leaves. There’s no connection to the community, and it can be very exploitative. I’ve tried to think about documentary film differently, and part of that is thinking beyond the frame — to what precedes, exceeds, and follows the frame.”


Nandini Sikand (Ph.D. '10, Anthropology) on location for her previous film, One If by Land. Photo by Andy Smith. 

Part of Sikand’s doctoral training involved immersing herself in a community as she wrote about them, just as she later did with Inside/Outside. The idea of community shapes her film work to an unusual degree. “Typically, we don’t think of incarcerated populations as part of our community,” she says. “I’ve lived in Easton for almost 10 years. And to me, community includes the people in the jail and their families.”
Just because Sikand’s film is complete doesn’t mean that her work is done. She continues to volunteer as a yoga instructor at the jail, as she has for three years. The day after she spoke to The Graduate Center, she visited the jail to present the film. She plans to screen the film there again in the coming months.
So far, the film has screened in the theater only once, but in the place most meaningful to her: her adopted home of Easton, where locals, including women from the film and their relatives, packed the venue. It will screen next at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Sikand hopes to show clips when she comes to The Graduate Center on April 12, when she will be appearing on a panel of former students of Professor Michael Blim (Anthropology), her dissertation adviser, who is retiring.

connolly and sikand accept reward

Nandini Sikand (left) received a Graduate of the Last Decade Award from GC Interim President Joy Connolly.

The alumni award holds special meaning for Sikand. The nine years she worked toward her Ph.D. overlapped with a time in her life in which she worked full time, lost her media job during the economic contraction that followed the September 11 attacks, and had her two children. “The Graduate Center was my lifeline,” she says. “It grounded me and kept me going through the chaos.”
Sikand is the director and producer of nine previous films, and has received grants from The Guggenheim Foundation, among others. She is also a choreographer and dancer who performs regularly with her neo-classical Odissi dance company, Sakshi Productions.

Currently she is at work on her second book project, which focuses on race and media.
She is also continuing to promote Inside/Outside, and above all, working to make sure that its message reaches as wide an audience as possible. “The film itself is not the point,” she says. “I’m hoping to add to the conversation.”