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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The Justice-in-Education Initiative can trace its origins to the efforts of a handful of incarcerated women, including Elliott and her one-time fellow inmate Cheryl Wilkins, who is now senior director of education and programs at the Center for Justice.

The story begins in 1992, when Elliott went to prison, a twenty-year-old convicted of murder and sentenced to twenty-five years to life. “I’d dropped out of high school, and I started running the streets — carrying knives, carrying guns, selling drugs, just being an idiot,” Elliott recalls. One night, Elliott was out drinking in a bar in her hometown of Utica; she was underage, and another young woman ratted on her. As Elliott recounts it, “They threw me out of the club. I came out swinging. It just went straight downhill from there.” The other woman cut her with a razor — a large scar on Elliott’s forearm testifies to that. “And then I responded. My friend handed me a knife and I just went off.” She doesn’t deny her responsibility. “There were so many ways around that. But you don’t realize it until you stop thinking in a street-mentality way. When you educate yourself, you learn how to be human, how to be respectful, how to have morals, how to be nonviolent. You learn so many things when you’re going to school.”

Sent to the maximum-security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (also in Bedford Hills, New York), Elliott set about earning her high-school-equivalency diploma, then dived into college courses in a program run by Mercy College. But in 1995, just as she drew within sight of graduation, President Bill Clinton signed anticrime legislation that cut off federal grants to prisoners for post-secondary education. State governments quickly followed suit. In 1994, an incarcerated person could earn a bachelor’s degree while doing time in the federal prison system or any of thirty-one state systems. A year later, practically all onsite college-education programs for prisoners in the US had vanished.

“That devastated me,” Elliott says. She and five other inmates — including Kathy Boudin, who was serving time for felony murder in the 1981 Brink’s robbery — formed a group that enlisted the support of the superintendent of the prison. Their goal was to bring higher education back inside Bedford Hills.

“When you educate yourself, you learn how to be human.”

Two years later, in 1997, thirty-five-year-old Cheryl Wilkins arrived at Bedford Hills, sentenced to up to ten years for robbery. Wilkins was aware that there had been a change in prison after college classes ended. “There were more fights, more arguments, a little more hopelessness,” Wilkins says. “So I jumped on that bandwagon and became a part of this committee to bring back college.” With the superintendent’s help, the inmate activists met with representatives from colleges, religious leaders, philanthropists, and volunteers, pulling together enough resources to build a computer lab and academic library called the College-Bound Learning Center, which Wilkins and Elliott helped run.   

By 1998, volunteer professors from nine colleges and universities were teaching college courses at Bedford Hills for credit toward degrees granted by Marymount Manhattan College. One of them was Columbia’s Geraldine Downey, who taught an abnormal-psychology class that Wilkins signed up for. Wilkins had a brother suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and she wanted to learn more about it.

“Cheryl did her project on developing a booklet that provided information to families about schizophrenia,” Downey says. “This opened up something new for me to use in my classes. Students in prison — not necessarily because they’re in prison, but because they are older and have lived life longer — they’re asking, ‘Why does this matter? How can this be applied?’ It makes you think as an educator in a different way. You think, ‘Can I take these academic concepts out of the ivory tower and explain them in a way that the incarcerated students will find useful?’”

Wilkins was released in 2005 and immediately went to work for a nonprofit supporting the efforts of men and women with criminal records to pursue higher education. She was equally concerned about incarceration’s impact on children and families. In 2009, Wilkins, having added a master’s in urban affairs from Hunter College to the bachelor’s in sociology from Marymount Manhattan College that she’d earned in prison, joined with Boudin, who was released in 2003, to develop the Criminal Justice Initiative: Supporting Children, Families, and Communities, based in Columbia’s School of Social Work. Aimed at addressing the social repercussions of mass incarceration, that initiative — through the efforts of Wilkins, Boudin (who became an adjunct professor at the School of Social Work in 2013), Downey, and Columbia provost John Coatsworth — grew into the Center for Justice.


The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but about 25 percent of its incarcerated people, with 2.2 million behind bars in prisons and jails. As the Center for Justice aims to reduce these numbers, education has proved a vital tool: according to Downey, who teaches at Sing Sing, “Being a college student in prison is the best-known protection against recidivism.”

Statistics compiled by Hudson Link bear her out: in New York State, 42 percent of men and women released from prison return within three years. Among those who have completed two semesters or more of college while incarcerated, the figure is 4 percent. And according to a 2013 Rand Corporation study, every dollar spent on inmate education translates to four to five dollars saved on re-incarceration. Yet political opposition to college education for prisoners remains implacable.

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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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