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.


“Life Outside” Video Series Launched to Spotlight the Aging Prison Population Crisis

Watch Video Below

In collaboration with the Media and Idea Lab (MIL) at Columbia University, we are excited to launch “Life Outside: Rosalie Comes Home,” the first in a series of videos featuring formerly incarcerated people over the age of 60 who are released from prison after having served lengthy sentences.

The series accompanies the Center’s recently published whitepaper, “Aging in Prison: Reducing Elder Incarceration and Promoting Public Safety.” According to the report, more than 17% of New York State’s prison population is age 50 or older. The number of incarcerated individuals of age 50 and older increased 81% over the past decade. From
2007 to 2010, the number of state and federal prisoners over 65 grew 94 times faster than the general population nationwide. As of 2012, there were almost 125,000 prisoners aged 55 and older in the United States. This pace is projected to continue escalating fast for the next decades: By 2030, more than 400,000 older people are expected to be in prison, a staggering 4,400 percent increase from 1981 when there were only 8,853.


Shot entirely in New York, Life Outside’s first episode tells the story of Rosalie Cutting as she navigates the world at age 71 after serving a 27-year sentence. Throughout the video, Rosalie narrates her journey grappling with her time inside the prison walls of Bedford Hills and Taconic, where she ultimately received her GED, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, whilst developing educational programs to help other women who are incarcerated to achieve the same. “People do change,” said Cutting. “And they change because it’s a choice.”

The series is the first collaboration between the Center for Justice and MIL. “The Lab is thrilled to collaborate in this important series,” adds Frances Negrón-Muntaner, director of the Lab and the series. “Through these stories, we aim to amplify the voices of formerly incarcerated people as part of a larger dialogue about the necessity of shifting from a punitive to a transformative paradigm of justice. Coming home should not be this hard. ”

Columbia Prison Education Program x Hudson Link featured in Reuters

Last week, Reuters’ Barbara Goldberg visited a class taught by Columbia University Professor Laura Ciolkowski at Taconic Correctional Facility on the classics.  The course is one of several taught each semester through our Prison Education Program at two New York State Correctional Facilities, Taconic and Sing Sing.   The program is a collaboration with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, an organization that provides college education, life skills and re-entry support to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women.

Homer, Virgil hauled to New York prison for Ivy League class

By Barbara Goldberg

….Homer, Euripides and Virgil are all doing weekly stints at a New York women’s prison this spring. Their classic works are being read by inmates enrolled in a Columbia University course organized by the non-profit Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, which aims to boost employment for convicts upon release and reduce recidivism.

About half of the 700,000 inmates who leave U.S. federal and state prisons each year in the world’s biggest penal system will be re-incarcerated within three years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. But those who have taken classes offered by a consortium of colleges through Hudson Link over 16 years – including in the infamous Sing Sing penitentiary – have a recidivism rate of less than 2 percent.

You can read the full story here: Homer, Virgil hauled to New York prison for Ivy League class

Beats, Rhymes & Justice Featured in VICE

Beats, Rhymes, and Justice @ Rikers Island - NY, NY - 02/26/2016 - Photographed by Jason Bergman for VICE / /

Beats, Rhymes, and Justice @ Rikers Island – Photographed by Jason Bergman for VICE

Beats, Rhymes & Justice (BRJ), a collaboration with our partners at Audio Pictures LLC., was recently featured in VICE.  BRJ is a part of the larger Rikers Education Program that brings social justice oriented project based education programming to young people ages 16-22 at Rikers Island.

BRJ uses digital music production, lyric writing and media literacy to engage young people in producing and recording songs at Rikers Island.  Students learn to create and record songs using iPads and music production software as well as critically examine a variety of works from hip-hop artists including Tupac, Nas and Kendrick Lamar.

The program was created in March 2015 in partnership with Audio Pictures LLC., a Queens-based production and sound design company that also develops hip hop education programming. Audio Pictures LLC. has been instrumental in developing the program, the curriculum and working with us to deliver and expand the program.  Over the last year we have run the program more than six times in two different facilities at Rikers Island with a great deal of success, with the young people who are incarcerated, with the Columbia students who participate in the program as well as the correctional officers and staff at the Department of Corrections.


Friday Night Hip-Hop on Rikers Island

By John Surico

Our seats are arranged in a circle around a laptop connected to speakers. The track is “Dear Mama” by Tupac—a poignant love letter from the late rapper to his mother, apologizing for the jail cells she had to visit him in. Everyone sits quietly, reading the lyrics as the song plays through.

One of the first lines resonates here: “When I was young, me and my mama had beef / 17 years old, kicked out on the streets.”

Beats, Rhymes, and Justice @ Rikers Island - NY, NY - 02/26/2016 - Photographed by Jason Bergman for VICE / /

Beats, Rhymes, and Justice @ Rikers Island – Photographed by Jason Bergman for VICE

“I feel him, like…” one teenager, quickly wiping away tears, says into a microphone after the song ends. “I got kicked out when I was 17, and my mom wanted nothing to do with me. And my dad, I don’t even fuck with him.”

The mic gets passed around, as the other members of the circle—all dressed in their brown jumpsuits, with white socks and black velcro shoes—react to the 1995 ballad. Some don’t say much; others open up. The mic eventually makes its way back to another teenager who refused to talk the first time around.

You can find the full article here: Friday Night Hip-Hop on Rikers Island

Meet the 2015-16 Beyond the Bars Fellows

15-16 Fellows

Our current Fellows come from many schools across Columbia (Social Work, Teachers College, Columbia College and the School of Professional Studies), other colleges (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York Theological Seminary, Hunter College, SUNY Downstate, Fairleigh Dickinson University) and a variety of different community and government organizations (Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brennan Center for Justice, Opportunities and Change, New York City Department of Small Business Services, CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, the Ladies of Hope Ministries and the New York State Senate).  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.

Learn more about the Fellows here.