Beyond the Bars 2018 – Save the Date

Save the Date! 
Beyond the Bars: Closing Jails and Prisons
March 1-4, 2018

The 8th annual Beyond the Bars Conference of the Center for Justice at Columbia University seeks to contribute to the growing movement to close jails and prisons as a part of the larger struggle to end mass incarceration. In particular, we will focus on elevating the efforts led by grassroots organizers that include formerly incarcerated and directly impacted people.

Prison and jail closings have been taking place unevenly throughout the United States over the past decade. However, campaigns like the ones in New York, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee have helped to usher in a new phase, one that highlights the role of grassroots organizing and directly impacted leadership, and that has begun to put forth a more transformative vision of how to close jails and prisons and what comes in their place. Momentum for lasting change is building. Organizers, activists and scholars have been grappling with many of the deeply seeded issues related to incarceration and criminalization. From the movement to close youth prisons entirely, to centering the fight for racial justice, to highlighting the ways that women and lgbtq community are impacted, to focusing on the elderly inside prisons with long sentences that are about punishment not safety, to interrogating the effectiveness of punishment in reducing violence, we are at a moment where we are able to make concrete advances in reducing the carceral footprint.

It is our hope that this conference will bolster these efforts in the following ways:

  • Convene and support a national network of people and organizations working to close jails and prisons across the country
  • Help articulate a vision and analysis for closing jails and prisons and what comes in its place
  • Address and examine some of the difficult issues and questions that arise in the efforts to close jails and prison
  • Further catalyze university involvement in the struggle to end mass incarceration


The Beyond the Bars Fellowship offers students and community members an interdisciplinary leadership development program to develop and deepen their identity, analysis, skills and network towards ending mass incarceration and creating a more just and safe world. Through seminars, workshops and guest lectures Fellows explore their own experiences and identities as people working for social change; gain a theoretical and practical understanding of mass incarceration; and are introduced to various models of social change including community organizing, legislative advocacy, messaging and communications and more.  In addition Fellows work together with the Center for Justice and the Criminal Justice Caucus to organize the annual Beyond the Bars Conference on ending mass incarceration and realizing social justice. The Fellowship is made up of both Students and Community members and our aim is to work collaboratively with the University and Community towards social change

Is the Fellowship Right for me?

We aim to bring together Columbia University students with the larger NYC community to create a diverse and rich learning environment that can be mutually beneficial to all Fellows. We encourage people impacted (directly and indirectly) by mass incarceration to apply. Please note that extensive experience is not a requirement.

What will you gain?

  • Leadership Development: Participate in regular seminars, workshops and guest lectures and deepen your understanding of yourself as well as develop your understanding of justice issues and your capacity to enact change.
  • Organizing Experience: Work collaboratively to help organize the annual Beyond the Bars Conference
  • A Community of Mentors and Colleagues: The Fellowship is an intentional and experiential learning community that will support your growth as a social justice advocate.

All applicants should meet the following:

  • Have a desire to be a part of group learning environment
  • Demonstrated enthusiasm for social justice.
  • Commitment to fulfill all requirements of the Fellowship

Columbia Fellows should be Current Columbia student enrolled at least half-time in an undergraduate or graduate program.

Community Fellows are not enrolled at Columbia University. We encourage applicants who are not students or have not attended college to apply. Students from other colleges / universities are welcome to apply.


The priority application deadline is Monday August 21st.  After that we will be accepting applications on a rolling basis until Monday August 28th.



  • 1 page cover letter including:
    • Why you are interested in becoming a Beyond the Bars Fellow
    • What you hope to gain from the Fellowship
    • An assessment of your strengths and challenges
  • Resume/CV

Application Process  

July 28th: Application Period Opens
August 21st: Priority Application Deadline
August 28th: Application Period Closes
August 28th- Sept 7th – Interviews
September14th: Accepted Applicants are Notified
September 21st: Fellowship Starts

Tentative Fellowship Calendar

The Fellowship meets most Thursday nights from

Fall Dates

September 21st
September 28th
Oct 6th – Oct 8th: 3 Day Retreat
October 12th
October 19th
October 26th
November 2nd
November 9th
November 16th
November 30th
December 7th
December 14th

Spring Dates

January 18th
January 25th
February 1st
February 8th
February 15th
February 22nd
March 1st–4th: Beyond the Bars Conference
March 9th
March 22nd
March 29th
April 5th
April 13th-15th: 3 Day Closing Retreat

Center for Justice Partners on New Early Diversion Initiative

The Center for Justice is excited to partner with the Osborne Association and the Advancing Justice Initiative at the Columbia School of Social Work on a new Early Diversion Initiative launched by the Office of the District Attorney of New York County, Cy Vance Jr.

The Early Diversion Initiative will create early diversion programs that provide participants with opportunities to avoid prosecution and an arrest record through participating in short term programming in the community.

Our partners at the Osborne Association had this to say “The Osborne Association is honored to partner with the Center for Justice at Columbia University to divert people who have been arrested in Harlem by offering a meaningful community alternative to court process that can lead to better outcomes for individuals and safer communities. We thank District Attorney Vance for this opportunity to offer pathways out of the criminal justice system and into targeted interventions and wrap-around services. The District Attorney’s Criminal Justice Investment Initiative and commitment to alternatives to traditionally punitive prosecutions promises to make a real difference in the lives of all New Yorkers.” – Osborne Association President and CEO Elizabeth Gaynes

You can read the full press release from the District Attorney’s Office HERE. 

Beyond the Bars 2017 Recap

Thank you to everyone who joined us for the 7th annual Beyond the Bars Conference: Transcending the Punishment Paradigm.  We are grateful for the more than 1500 attendees and the 150+ speakers who joined us over the four days. This year’s conference focused on the criminal justice system’s responses to violence focusing on the following four questions:

  1. What are the root causes of violence within communities? What are the root causes of state violence? How do the two intersect?
  2. What is needed to makes communities safe?
  3. What are the existing narratives about people who have committed violent acts? How do we change those narratives?
  4. When violence happens in the community, what are responses that decrease mass criminalization and incarceration and do not rely on the punishment paradigm?


Recap Video Below 


We are especially thankful to the dozens of organizers and supporters that contributed in some way to make this a meaningful and important event.

We have lots to share from this year and are looking forward to publishing a report from the conference in the Fall of this year.

Voices from Beyond the Bars 

Videos from the Conference 

Conference Programs 



2017 Recap Video

Meet the 2016-17 Beyond the Bars Fellows

We are excited to introduce the 2016-17 Beyond the Bars Fellows, the third cohort of this growing Fellowship.


Our current Fellows come from many schools across Columbia (Social Work, Teachers College, Columbia College, the School of the Arts, School of Public Health and the Sociology Department), other colleges (Rutgers, New York University, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College) and a variety of different community and government organizations (the Osborne Association, Vera Institute of Justice, the Red Umbrella Project, the Fortune Society, VIBE magazine and the Center for Court Innovations).  We are honored to be working with such a powerful group of people and look forward to seeing the work of the Fellowship continue to grow.


Beyond the Bars 2017: Save the Date and Request for Proposals

Save the Date – Beyond the Bars: Transcending the Punishment Paradigm

March 2-5, 2017

The Beyond the Bars Conference, now going into its 7th year, is an annual event that brings together a trans-disciplinary group to advance the work of ending mass incarceration and mass criminalization and building a just and safe society. Each year scholars, students, activists, advocates, policy makers, government officials and those who have been most directly impacted by issues of incarceration and criminalization come together for three days to deepen our collective analysis, strengthen our network of those working for change and make visible the many ways those from the academy and the community can engage in action.

This year’s conference, Transcending the Punishment Paradigm, will address the criminal justice system’s responses to violence focusing on the following four questions:

  1. What are the root causes of violence within communities? What are the root causes of state violence? How do the two intersect?
  2. What is needed to makes communities safe?
  3. What are the existing narratives about people who have committed violent acts? How do we change those narratives?
  4. When violence happens in the community, what are responses that decrease mass criminalization and incarceration and do not rely on the punishment paradigm?

Request for Proposals

Sunday, March 5, 2017, the third day of the Beyond the Bars conference, will feature 90-minute organizing workshops.  These sessions are designed to facilitate skill-sharing, learning, and active engagement.  The workshops are a chance to present the many political struggles connected to mass criminalization, to teach new tools for advocacy, and to connect participants to opportunities for continued engagement beyond the conference.  What skills do you wish more people had?  What do people need to know in order to contribute more effectively to your work?  What are the concrete steps people can take today to support the work that you’re doing?  We are particularly committed to highlighting the voices and organizing done by: people of color, women, queer and trans people, and young people.

We are interested in proposals that touch on various topics related to violence, including:

  • State violence (including policing, incarceration, deportation, and correctional supervision)
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Community Violence
  • Sexual violence
  • Transformative and restorative justice
  • The distinction between “violent and nonviolent offenders”
  • Trauma and healing
  • Interrupting violence and self-defense
  • Reentry

We are looking forward to learning various skills, including:

  • Self care: how do you do this work while dealing with vicarious trauma?
  • Alternate approaches to combatting violence
  • Anti-oppressive organizational practices
  • Creating political campaigns
  • Community organizing and base building
  • Communicating your message (including the use of social media)
  • Coordinating direct actions
  • Arts-based activism
  • Supporting people experiencing state violence (including currently incarcerated people)
  • Fundraising and budgeting
  • Legal advocacy
  • Mediation

We invite proposals for workshops that address one or more of these foundational topics and skills. In your proposal please emphasize tangible take-aways for participants and the ways you will facilitate this through active participation and/or gaining a deeper understanding of an issue.  

Accepted proposals will be interactive and bridge the gap from analysis to action. We are especially excited about workshops that provide the opportunity for continued involvement after the conference weekend—either through one’s individual actions or through involvement with a group.

All workshops will be 1.5 hours long and take place on Sunday, March 5, 2017 at Columbia University School of Social Work.

To submit a proposal, please fill out the following form by January 31, 2017:

Please feel free to reach out to us with any questions or comments at:

Restorative Justice and Racial Justice Event + Peacemaking Training with Kay Pranis

This past Friday we co-organized an event “Building a Restorative Justice

IMG_3820Movement Grounded in Racial Justice” with the Restorative Justice Initiative, the Criminal Justice Caucus at Columbia School of Social Work and the Field Education Department and Student Services at Columbia School of Social Work.  The speakers included Whitney Richards-Calathes, Aisha Norris, Melody Benitez, José Alfaro and Kay Pranis and covered a wide range of questions including using restorative justice processes to talk about race and racism, what is needed to build a movement that embraces an intersectional lens and puts racial justice at the forefront, and what contradictions exist within the restorative justice movement currently.






This weekend we also hosted a 3-day Introduction to Peacemaking Circles with Kay Pranis that included participants from a wide range of organizations including instructors and facilitators in our Rikers Education Program, staff from Center for Court Innovation, Bronx Defenders, Center for Creative Conflict Resolution – Oath, NYC High Schools and more.


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John MacKenzie and the Importance of the Release of Aging People in Prison

13mon3web-master675On Thursday, August 4th, our community learned of the death of John MacKenzie at Fishkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York. John committed suicide after being denied parole on Wednesday. He appeared before the parole board ten times over the last sixteen years. He had spent the last 41 years incarcerated in New York State prisons following his fatal shooting of a police officer in the midst of a burglary. While behind bars, John proved himself to be a model prisoner, earning three degrees, as well as securing $10,000 in funding to create a program to enable victims of violent crimes to speak directly to currently incarcerated people about the impact of their crimes. John was given a 15-life sentence by the judge and went to his first parole board at the end of the minimum sentence of 15 years. However, the parole board ignored John’s rehabilitation and the assessment of the legally required Compass Instrument that found he is not a risk to public safety and turned him down for parole 15 years beyond the minimum sentence given by the judge because of their assessment of the seriousness of the crime he committed.

The policy of the parole board has been to repeatedly turn down people who have been convicted of murder, and especially those convicted of the death of a police officer. They are in violation of the parole executive law in continuing to deny people simply because of the crime they committed, and ignoring public safety assessment, and the who the person is today. Dutchess County judge Maria Rosa found the Parole Board in contempt for their repeated, improper denial of John’s petition and fined them $500 per day, and the parole board appealed her decision. The Board scheduled a new hearing once again for the tenth time, however, the Board still rejected John’s release. In despair, he tragically took his own life. The past week has seen demonstrations both here in New York City as well as upstate.

While we mourn the loss of John MacKenzie at the hands of an unjust system, this moment only underscores the necessity and the urgency of our work to release aging people from prison. Individuals like MacKenzie and thousands of others, languish behind bars convicted of violent crimes but have continually demonstrated time and time again that they pose no threat to society. Parole was specifically created for people like John, who have demonstrated remorse and responsibility for their crimes and who deserve a second chance at freedom. The Center has published a white paper on aging incarcerated populations as well as released a short film on this topic to educate both policymakers and the general public. Links to other organizations doing similar advocacy are included at the end of this post. The Center continues to conduct research and to advocate for the release of aging populations from prison, collaborating with RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison), the Osborne Association, and others, in the hopes of preventing more deaths like John Mackenzie’s. We call on the public to seize this moment as a chance to push for reform and to further expand education around this issue. We honor John’s memory and keep him, his family and all those who still remain behind bars in our thoughts.

For more on this story: Suicide of 70-Year-Old John Mackenzie After Tenth Parole Denial Illustrates Broken System , After Being Denied Parole 10 Times, Elderly Prisoner Allegedly Commits Suicide at Fishkill Prison, Calls Grow for NY Gov Cuomo to Reform Parole Board That Denies Release of Eligible Prisoners

Resources: Parole Justice NY Coalition, Campaign to Shut Down Rikers, the New York State Prisoners Justice Network, Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, Osborne Association, Urban Justice Center, Candles for Clemency


Columbia Economists Show Consequences of Money Bail


Columbia PhD Candidates Chris Hansman, (Economics) and Arpit Gupta, PhD (Finance and Economics) have co-authored a paper with Maryland Public Defender Ethan Frenchman titled “The Heavy Costs of High Bail: Evidence from Judge Randomization” showing the consequences for public safety and justice from the practice of money bail.

The research was funded in part by our Investing in Justice Pilot Project Funding Program and we are excited to watch the impact of their work unfold as discussions of money bail and changing policy continue to grow.

Their work was highlighted by the Atlantic today in an article titled “Is Bail Causing Convictions?” Below is an excerpt and you can read the entire article HERE.

Is Bail Causing Convictions?

Bail is supposed to encourage defendants to show up for trials, but it also increases the likelihood of conviction and recidivism.

Bourree Lam 

Of the many surprising statistics about America’s money bail system, this one may be the most astounding: More than 60 percent of people in America’s overcrowded jails are there because they can’t afford to pay their bail amount. That works out to roughly 450,000 Americans in jail daily, and how long they stay there can vary with waiting times for trials potentially lasting months (or sometimes, years).

The American money-bail system, which has been around since 1789, has ripple effect. Some reformers argue that poor defendants might plead guilty in order to be released. Others say that there are more effective alternatives to money bail, such as using a risk score or supervising defendants before trial. Concerns aboutthe use of money in the bail system and the bail bond industry have also raised questions about America’s pretrial system and the way it affects the lives of unconvicted people…….

……Now, two economists from Columbia University and a public defender from Maryland have co-authored a study showing the size of the impact on assigning money bail on the likelihood of a guilty plea and recidivism. The experiment uses criminal data from the arraignment system in Philadelphia from 2010 to 2015, where the assignment of defendants to bail magistrates is close to random. This randomness is ideal for what economists call a natural experiment, where defendants are exposed to different conditions (in this case, different magistrates with different predispositions to assigning bail) at random.

Chris Hansman, a PhD candidate in economics at Columbia University and a co-author of the paper, says that he and his fellow researchers found that being assigned money bail increases the probability of conviction by about 6 percentage points and also causes a 4 percentage point increase in the risk that someone would go on to commit another crime.


Beyond the Box Report: Beyond the Bars Fellows’ Student Spotlights

2015-16 Beyond the Bars Fellows and Columbia Students Leyla Martinez (GS) and Christopher Medina-Kirchner (Bridge to PhD Program in the Natural Sciences) were featured in a new report released yesterday from the U.S. Department of Education, Beyond the Box: Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals, encouraging “alternatives to inquiring about criminal histories during college admissions and provides recommendations to support a holistic review of applicants.”  The report included student spotlights from both Ms. Martinez and Mr. Medina-Kirchner, marking the first time the Department included students spotlights in their reports.   Both also gave input to Department officials throughout the development of the report, as did several other Beyond the Bars Fellows.  In addition they were invited to speak at the release of the report at UCLA.  A fact sheet from the report can be accessed here.


Student Spotlight Excerpt from Leyla Martinez

“I thought to myself, ‘why apply?’ They are just going to reject me. I felt like the goal I set to show my son—it was worth trying—was unrealistic…so I stopped my application.

Fortunately, I had shared what I was doing with my friends who insisted that I finish the application. I did, but did not reply in the way they were asking. They wanted to know about my crime, but I told them about my accomplishments since being home. I told them about the struggles of being a single mom and a victim of domestic violence. I told them about how I earned a 3.9 GPA at the small public college I was attending after a ten year hiatus from school. I told them about my work with my state senators and local assemblymen as an advocate for continued funding for low-income individuals to continue their pursuit of higher education.”

Student Spotlight Excerpt from Christopher Medina-Kirchner

“My life is really an amazing story about persistence, motivation, and overcoming adversity. Unfortunately, the process made me not only keep the story out of my personal statement, but also out of any conversation for fear of the consequence and stigma associated with having a criminal record.”

The full spotlights and transcripts are available in the report.