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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“Opening up education to people who’ve been deprived of it reflects our values as an institution,” says Downey. “Columbia has made a big commitment to support people in getting a fair chance.”

In addition to Rikers, the initiative sends Columbia faculty to teach college-credit courses in three New York State prisons: Sing Sing, Taconic, and Bedford Hills, providing eleven courses to 130 students this year. The program also gives former prisoners a jump-start in continuing their studies with a skills-intensive four-credit humanities course, Humanities Texts, Critical Skills, offered on the Morningside campus through the Department of English and Comparative Literature.

“The value of entering a classroom, a space in which you are a human being, not a prisoner, is absolutely incalculable.”

At Taconic and Sing Sing, courses taught by Columbia faculty, along with the faculty of six other participating colleges and universities, are coordinated by the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, a nonprofit run largely by former prisoners. The Columbia-taught courses are good for Columbia credit, but there are not enough of them offered for students to earn a Columbia degree. So all Columbia credits earned by students in the Hudson Link program are applied to degrees awarded by Mercy College and Nyack College. Downey would like to establish a Columbia degree program and offer more courses, but it’s not easy: on the prison side alone, obtaining security clearance for a professor is, she says, “a challenge.”

But when educators do get in, the results can be eye-opening. At Rikers, Blili-Hamelin wants his students to think in new ways — to “take a step away from the question ‘What’s my view on this?’ and focus instead on ‘Why should someone hold the view I hold?’ By examining the reasons why they hold one view as opposed to another, people might change their perspective on the issue, and change their perspective on people who hold views different from theirs. That, to me, is the ideal outcome.”

Rikers student Bridget Francois agrees.

“I really like this class,” she says. “The best part is debating. You learn to look at a situation or a topic from a different point of view, not only your own point of view.”

Asked if she hopes to continue her education, Francois replies in her rapid-fire staccato fashion, “I’m twenty-one. I’m in twelfth grade. I’m in here finishing my high-school diploma. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do. I’ve always wanted to study psychiatry, be a therapist, but I also like journalism, because I love to write. I’d love to study a lot of things. I plan on going to Columbia.”


You should not have run from me. I am the great Apollo! I am not some shepherd boy.

Aisha Elliott — or Elliott, A., 92G0185, as the patch sewn on her pocket would have it — declares in imperious tones her idea of what Apollo might have been thinking as he chased down Daphne, the terrified target of his rapacious desire. She and seven classmates, all clad in baggy, prison-issue dark-green shirts and pants — Elliott’s hot-pink sneakers look defiantly jaunty — are analyzing Ovid’s Metamorphoses in a Literature Humanities class led by Columbia professor Laura Ciolkowski ’88CC, who is associate director of Columbia’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality.

Outside, tall chainlink fences topped by coils of concertina wire hold the students inside the Taconic Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison forty miles north of New York City in Bedford Hills, New York. But though the students can’t get out, ideas have come in.

“When Aisha says, ‘I am Apollo,’ you’re seeing her deep engagement with Ovid’s text, actually entering into the character of Apollo to address his motivations, and to analyze the relationships in the poem as a whole,” Ciolkowski says. “There’s a kind of entitlement to his character. Why? And how does that connect to the larger social and aesthetic structures in which this character operates?”

Elliott had some thoughts on that. “At issue in Ovid’s Apollo and Daphne is the concept of power and the way in which it is used to take away a woman’s agency,” she wrote in her final paper for Ciolkowski’s class. “Like Apollo, Tereus was also a male in a prominent position of power who abused and violated women.”

“There was a lot of rape in the poems that we read,” Elliott says. “Why were they raped? Was it based on how they looked, what they said, the lack of power that women have when it comes to men in powerful positions — just really interesting stuff that I never had a conversation about, and I get it now.”

Her professor finds larger meaning in Elliott’s academic growth. “Prison is dehumanizing,” Ciolkowski says. “It’s objectifying, and the value of entering a classroom, a space in which you are a human being, not a prisoner, is absolutely incalculable. In some ways it’s also about futurity, the idea that one isn’t just one’s past. Outside of the classroom they are whatever it is that they did to get into that prison. Inside the classroom they are human beings with a future, with hope, with potential, with the ability to think outside themselves — ‘I am Apollo; I am not just myself. I am able to imaginatively enter into the worlds of others.’ That is immensely valuable for an individual whose space has shrunk down so dramatically, and whose humanity is largely taken away from her.”

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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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