Opening Minds Behind Bars

What happens when you bring college classes to incarcerated men and women?

by James S. Kunen '70CC Published Summer 2017
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Illustrations by James Steinberg

If you’ve ever glanced out the window of a plane flying into or out of LaGuardia Airport, you’ve seen Rikers Island. The flat strip of land, strikingly treeless, sits in the East River between Queens and the Bronx. With its clusters of long, low buildings, Rikers could be some sort of warehouse and distribution center, where tractor-trailers back up to bays to be loaded or unloaded. But there are no trucks. What is warehoused here is people — about 7,500 on any given day — detained by the New York City Department of Correction. Most of them, accused but not yet convicted of crimes, have been waiting months and even years for their day in court. Others have been found guilty and sentenced to a year or less in jail.

On a recent evening, Mia Ruyter, the education and outreach manager of Columbia’s Heyman Center for the Humanities, drives two graduate students — one of them a Columbia philosophy PhD candidate named Borhane Blili-Hamelin ’13GSAS — over the one long and narrow bridge that connects Rikers to anywhere.

Showing their passes at a checkpoint, the educators proceed to the Rose M. Singer Center, where women are held. After a lengthier ID check in the building’s foyer, they are ushered through a metal detector and a steel door, then a succession of five sliding iron gates, each clanging shut behind them, and finally one more steel door, into the Program Corridor, where they enter classroom 77.

A male corrections officer brings in eleven young women, aged eighteen to twenty-one. They are wearing identical khaki jumpsuits but manage to make individual fashion statements: a white kerchief around the neck, long pink sleeves, a Mohawk haircut. Quickly taking their seats on gray molded-plastic chairs around a battered folding table, they lean forward attentively, ready to spring into Socratic dialogue.

“Today, the topic is punishment,” announces Veronica Padilla, a PhD candidate at the New School and Blili-Hamelin’s teaching partner.

“What is punishment?” asks Bo, as the students call Blili-Hamelin — everyone’s on a first-name basis. “Let’s go around the room. Say one word you associate with punishment.”

“Something being taken away,” says one young woman. “Weapon,” says another. The rest respond in turn: “Jail ... Suffering ... Restriction ... Misery ... Depression ... Isolation ... Consequences ... Sadness.”

“What kind of punishment could involve pain?” Bo asks.

“Whipping by parents,” offers one student.

Another suggests, “Physical, mental, emotional punishment, by a parent or lover —”

“Or yourself,” interjects a third.

Discussing who has the authority to impose punishment, the class comes up with two groups: on the one hand, parents, lovers, and friends; on the other, the government, personified by corrections officers, the police, the DA, the judge.

“What differences are there between the two groups?” asks Padilla.

“You don’t have to listen to your family,” a student responds. “With the government, you have no choice.”

When the class takes a quick break, Blili-Hamelin, who has a particular interest in German idealism, the history of social philosophy, and metaethics, explains to a visitor that he’s not there to teach a lesson. “We’re not lecturing,” he says. “My goal is to get students to have as much of a feel for philosophical discussion as possible.”

His course, ReThink: Building Critical-Thinking Skills, is one of the ten four-to-six-week workshops that Columbia’s Justice-in-Education Initiative has delivered to a hundred young men and women at Rikers over the past year. The classes are taught mostly by Columbia graduate students and include subjects like computer coding, graphic design, architecture, and philosophical discussion. The goal, says Ruyter, who has led three graphic-design workshops herself, is to re-engage the students with education, help them develop skills that will be useful in finding a job, and encourage them to think about social-justice issues.

The Justice-in-Education Initiative is a partnership of the Heyman Center for the Humanities, led by Eileen Gillooly ’93GSAS, and the Center for Justice at Columbia, an interdisciplinary collaborative committed to helping to end mass incarceration through research, policy work, and, of course, education. The director of the Center for Justice is psychology professor Geraldine Downey, who has been involved in prison education since 1988, when, as a postdoc, she volunteered to teach at a facility in Michigan and saw how transformative education could be.

“Education is a pathway forward for everybody,” says Downey, “and society is better for it. Education benefits individuals impacted by incarceration, and that makes society safer. By allowing people who want to turn their lives around the opportunity to do so, we all profit.”

The Justice-in-Education Initiative began in 2015 with a one-million-dollar, three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, part of what the Wall Street Journal called “a new push” from philanthropists and lawmakers to “prepare inmates for life beyond bars.” That same year, Columbia became the first US institution of higher learning to divest from private prisons. And in June 2016, the University signed the White House Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge, which commits colleges and universities to increase educational access to the seventy million Americans who have a criminal record — including those in prison.

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This article was so enlightening and I commend all the Columbia affiliated people for doing such great and inspiring work in a broken system. Please continue what you all are doing and even consider opening some doors to students who may be interested in mentoring young men and women behind bars. Thank you so much for writing this article and continuing to educate not only the Columbia community on these hardships and injustices, but also anyone who may come across this article.

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