Not a Number

Columbia's Kirk James has seen prison education from both sides.

by James S. Kunen '70CC Published Summer 2017
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Perhaps no faculty member in Columbia’s Justice-in-Education Initiative understands how much college courses mean to incarcerated people as well as Kirk James. That’s because he has been a student as well as a teacher in prison.

In 1994, at age eighteen, James, who had no prior offenses, was sentenced to seven years to life under the Rockefeller drug laws. At the time he was a community-college student in Queens, studying criminal justice and hoping to be a lawyer. One day, he was enticed by undercover police officers to obtain drugs and guns for them; he put them together with a seller and spent nine years behind bars as a result.

“I know what it feels like for guys to have a visit and see their loved ones leave,” says James, now an adjunct assistant professor in the School of Social Work. “I know what it feels like to maybe not have a collect call accepted. I know what it feels like to be out of touch with your family for years, to go to the parole board and be constantly judged on something that you did ten, twenty, thirty years ago.”

What enabled him to endure imprisonment, he explains, was “the ability to go beyond the walls. And what allowed me to do that was education.” He was able to get that education because in 1999 he happened to be transferred to the Wyoming Correctional Facility, in Wyoming County, New York, which had a privately funded college program. “This experience was transformational,” James recalls. “My number was 9486325. It felt the most oppressive to me, the idea that someone could see me as only this number. I had a psychology professor — he would have these classes where we could talk about anything. The idea that what we wanted to talk about was important, that our feelings mattered, was validating. There was a validation of who we were. My idea of success is the ability to start to see yourself beyond being a prisoner — the ability to see yourself beyond a number. That’s what education afforded me.”

Last fall, James traveled forty miles up the river to Ossining, in Westchester County, to teach a two-hour, fourteen-week course called Race, Trauma, and Oppression at the maximum-security Sing Sing Correctional Facility.

“It’s been one of the most humbling, rewarding experiences of my life,” he says, “being in a room where twenty-five men are speaking about trauma, about vulnerability, about how to cultivate positive relationships. The thing that’s so powerful, which struck me immediately, was their amazing level of attention, as well as their ability and willingness to be reflective, vulnerable, to speak truth to themselves. We had a conversation — I said there was a great debate now between prison reform and prison abolition. You had folks in the class who said, ‘No, we need prisons.’ And you had folks who said, ‘No, prisons are inherently oppressive and traumatic.’ And the folks who were for prison, some of them started to come around and say, ‘Maybe it’s not that we need prisons, but that we need mechanisms to address behaviors that are dangerous.’

“Their ability to think critically is phenomenal,” says James. “I think if anyone sat in that classroom for an hour, their idea of prisons and prisoners would be shattered.”


Read the related article Opening Minds Behind Bars: magazine.columbia.edu/features/summer-2017/opening-minds-behind-bars

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