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

Even if education supports rehabilitation, opponents argue, imprisonment serves other important purposes as well — including deterrence and retribution for bad acts — and rewarding prisoners with free college courses arguably contravenes those goals. When New York governor Andrew Cuomo sought public funding in 2014 to support a small program of college education in a few New York prisons, legislators in Albany killed the plan.

“It should be ‘do the crime, do the time,’ not ‘do the crime, earn a degree,’” argued George D. Maziarz, a state senator from western New York. “It is simply beyond belief to give criminals a competitive edge in the job market over law-abiding New Yorkers who forgo college because of the high cost.”

Christia Mercer, who is the Gustave M. Berne Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Columbia, and who taught Introduction to Philosophy in the spring — her fourth course at Taconic Correctional Facility — finds the objections unpersuasive.

“The vast majority of people who are incarcerated are there because they were in circumstances that gave them very few options,” Mercer says. “Eighty-two percent of the women at prisons like Taconic experienced severe physical or sexual abuse as children; 75 percent suffered physical violence by an intimate partner during adulthood; and at least a third of them were raped at some point in their lives. They were in substandard schools that offered no counseling. And so, many of them self-medicated, and it was often in a state of self-medication that they made their mistakes — some of them did terrible things, which they now unblinkingly admit and deeply regret.

“What these women needed when they were arrested was not punishment. What they needed was a chance to rehabilitate themselves. So it’s not clear to me what the point of ‘prison as punishment’ is. But there is a point to rehabilitation.”

For Downey, the point extends to families and society at large. “Education allows people who have been impacted by incarceration to take leadership in reducing social problems,” she says. “Many people in prison are parents, and education gives them a way of connecting with their children and inspiring them to continue on the educational path. It makes them better parents. That’s what my students have said to me about education and families: that children recognize the value of what their parents have taken on.”

“Many people in prison are parents, and education gives them a way of connecting with their children.”

Still, prison is far from an ideal learning environment, Mercer observes. Incarcerated students use libraries with limited content, have no access to the Internet, and have to write papers in longhand.

These students can be a challenge in some surprising ways, Mercer has found. “I think the students at Columbia are very good at being learners and very good at reading what’s expected of them in class,” she says. “They’ve been trained their whole lives to be good students. My students at Taconic are often brilliant and insightful, but they have not been trained to be good students. I’ve discovered that if you pose a set of questions to a group of Columbia students and expect them to answer the questions, then that’s what they’ll do, because they’re dutiful students. But if you do that with the Taconic students, they might be prepared to ask very different questions, because those other questions are the ones most interesting to them.

“Then the discussion goes in a direction that I as a professor would not have set it in, but it turns out to open up a part of the text or nature of a character that I had never thought of.”

She cites her Taconic class’s take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “In Twelfth Night, Maria plays a trick on Malvolio. Columbia students mostly think it’s justified, because Malvolio comes across as a pompous dude. My students at Taconic agreed that Malvolio is a bit of a jerk, but they thought that abusing him in the way that Maria did, and putting him in a situation to suffer in the way that he suffered, was not deserved, and that she and her friends took too much pleasure and delight in his suffering. The Taconic students opened up a moral element in the text that I had never seen before.”

For Mercer, one crucial thing about the Columbia program is that students are proud to be in it. “It gives them a sense of purpose,” she says, “and they work extremely hard to prove that they can do the kind of work that a Columbia student does.”

Aisha Elliott is one example. Mercer had her as a student in two of her courses. “The thing about Aisha is that she mentored women,” Mercer recalls. “A lot of the students in my class were in the college program because Aisha told them they had to be.”

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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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