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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“I didn’t feel like I was entitled to an education in prison,” Elliott says. “But I thought, ‘Now that I’m in prison, I’m going to take full advantage of everything that the state has to offer.’ Clearly my head was full of ignorance and street stuff. Once you get that out of your head, you need to fill it with something. Get rid of the streets, get rid of the ignorance, that stupid mentality that you had, and educate yourself. And I did. Prison is a horrible place. It’s the worst place in the world to be, and there were thousands of people there who should not have been there. But once you know how to write a paper, once you can have a conversation with your professor — there are so many things that education does for you.”

Downey has asked her incarcerated students what being in a college classroom says about them, about who they are.

“They told me it meant they were courageous, creative, committed knowledge-seekers, that they were determined to make something of themselves while doing their time,” Downey says. “It meant that they were resilient and able to lift themselves above the daily horror of life in prison. And they said our coming there as professors showed them that we believed in them — and that affirmed their belief in themselves.”


Last June, Elliott, locked up at twenty, was released from prison a forty-four-year-old woman (“an age I dreamed about for years,” she says). Her daughters were one and three when she went to prison. Elliott’s father was able to bring them to visit her once or twice a year; the girls grew up in the care of Elliott’s sister and their babysitter. Rakeisha, twenty-eight, is a licensed clinical social worker, and Aliya, twenty-six, is a health aide for disabled people and is studying radiology. They and their mother remain very close.

For the time being, Elliott is living in a reentry program in Queens, where she works in a thrift shop. She’s looking into the possibility of going to law school and adding a JD to the Marymount Manhattan College sociology degree that she earned behind bars. Says Ciolkowski, “I love that Aisha is moving on with her life. She’s a unique and incredible person, and I’m so honored to have known her.”

For Elliott, her classes taught her another lesson. “Education is not something to keep to yourself,” she says. “Like if we’re all poor and we get some food, you have to share it with the other poor people. I feel the same way about education. If you have it, you have to share it with people.”  


Read the related article Not a Number: magazine.columbia.edu/features/summer-2017/not-number

James S. Kunen ’70CC is the author of
The Strawberry Statement and Diary of a Company Man.

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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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