Justice-in-Education Initiative Transforms the Lives of Current, Former Prisoners

Georgette Jasen
September 14, 2015

The seminar in 401 Hamilton Hall focused on classic literary texts, including Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Othello, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. But this was no ordinary summer school class, and its students were not traditional collegians.

The four men and three women sitting around the wooden table with their professor ranged in age from their late 20s to early 40s— and all had served time in prison. The fourcredit course was part of Columbia’s Justice-in-Education Initiative, a program supported by a three-year, $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to provide education to current and former prisoners. In addition to the summer program on the Morningside campus, Columbia professors and students teach classes at New York City’s Rikers Island jail and inside state prisons.

“Education improves life’s choices,” said Eileen Gillooly, executive director of the Heyman Center for the Humanities, founder of its Public Humanities Initiative and affiliate faculty in English and Comparative Literature. “Studies have shown it reduces recidivism by as much as 40 percent.” Gillooly developed the program with Geraldine Downey, a psychology professor and director of Columbia’s Center for Justice.

The students who completed the summer course had taken college courses while in prison or at other educational institutions, and all plan to continue their education at fouryear colleges. “I want to make a better life for my family,” said Leyla Martinez, a 40-year-old single mother who has been admitted to Columbia’s School of General Studies. She hopes to pursue a doctorate, and maybe even teach. “I would like to be able to help others grow and change policy and attitudes about incarceration,” she said.

In a paper Martinez wrote about recidivism for a course at Hunter College last year, she cited a study showing that nearly 77 percent of state prisoners were rearrested within five years of their release. “The rate is so high because too many doors are closed for individuals

just like me, trying to change our lives,” she wrote. “We are often not given another opportunity to prove ourselves.”

The Justice–in-Education Initiative and Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race also sponsored a multimedia storytelling program this past summer for teenagers to explore justice issues through writing, performing arts and digital media. There are plans for expanded course offerings for Columbia undergraduates related to criminal justice and mass incarceration. And the course for former prisoners will be taught again next spring with a new group of students, including Columbia undergraduates.

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The initiative is only one of many University programs and policies focused on imprisonment and the incarcerated, a massive population in the U.S. and currently the subject of bipartisan reform proposals. The Center for Justice and the School of Social Work co-sponsor the annual Beyond the Bars conference on issues related to incarceration, including alternatives to prison. The Mailman School of Public Health last year launched an Incarceration Prevention Initiative to study the impact of imprisonment on public health.

Last spring, the University Trustees voted, with Bollinger’s support, to divest from companies that operate private prisons. Many Columbia professors are involved in other ways. For example, music professor Chris Washburne teaches and performs at the maximum security prison in Ossining, N.Y. as part of a program sponsored by Carnegie Hall.

The summer course for former prisoners was based on components of Columbia’s Core Curriculum for undergraduates. “It’s a way to connect the classical past to the contemporary present,” said Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an instructor in Columbia’s Classics Department and a member of the Society of Fellows in the Humanities, who taught the summer course with Emily Hainze, a Ph.D. student in English and Comparative Literature. When discussing Plato and Aristotle’s writings on friendship, for example, the students were encouraged to talk about their own friendships, including with drug dealers. The discussion of Othello included talk about race and marginalization. “These issues resonate across time,” said Padilla.

The summer students, who were recommended by non-profit advocacy groups or members of the Columbia community, had to write short papers and longer essays. “These are serious students. They knew it was going to be hard,” said Downey.

Student Isaac Scott described the experience as “a blessing,” one that boosted his self-confidence and improved his writing. Now the 33-year-old self-taught artist who spent more than seven years in prison hopes to become an art teacher.

Scott has a website that showcases his work and that of current and former prisoners, as well as others who have a connection to people in prison—including corrections officers. Works from the collection he has assembled, called Confined Art, will be exhibited at the Heyman Center in December. In a fitting tribute to the impact of his academic work, one of his graphic designs features the words, “Education is transformation.”