RikersBot Featured in Fast Company

Our ongoing coding project, RikersBot, was featured in Fast Company. 

RikersBot is a coding and digital storytelling project created Group for the Experimental Methods in the Humanities and Center for Justice. The project brings Columbia students and Rikers students together to learn coding by creating an Twitter Bot and  write stories be shared via the Twitter Bot. We are currently in our second cycle of the project, with future iterations planned for each semester.

How Rikers Students and Columbia Students Built a Twitter Bot – with no Internet

By Steven Melendez

Not long ago, a team from Columbia University set out to build an automated Twitter bot in a place with no Internet access—part of a 12-hour class for people with no prior programming experience. They held the class at New York’s Rikers Island in an ongoing effort by Columbia’s Center for Justice to provide educational programs for young people incarcerated at the jail complex. Teenage inmates worked alongside Columbia students to learn the basics of Python, put together tweets about their personal experiences, and contributed code to Rikers Story Bot, which randomly selects and posts a tweet from the group every day.

“A good portion of the code that made it into the bot was written in that class,” says Dennis Tenen, a software engineer turned English professor and one of the course instructors.

Since Rikers doesn’t provide Internet access to inmates, the instructors couldn’t stick to a standard coding school curriculum. The class relied a lot more on physical materials than most introductory programming classes. For example, instructors brought in printed tweets—including tweets by musicians Drake and Meek Mill, and from President Obama and the New York City Department of Correction—for students to study before they wrote their own. And with fewer computers than students, the classes included physical demonstrations of programming tasks, like looping and sorting papers.

“Everybody kind of gets into it, and really what they’re learning is the basics of algorithmic thinking and the basics of control structure,” says Tenen.

The goal wasn’t to turn the students into professional-grade programmers in just a few classes, Tenen emphasizes, but to introduce them to the basics of programming and reasoning about algorithms and code.

“It’s really to give people a taste, to get people excited about coding, in hopes that when they come out, they continue,” says Tenen.

Each member of the class also got a title, like developer or editor, that they’d be able to use on a job or school application, he says. And when they did sit down at the computer, Tenen says the Rikers inmates were often more willing to experiment than the slightly older Columbia students.

“In many ways, they seemed like kids that were just very eager to learn to put into this system where their voices weren’t being heard,” says Thomas Brown III, a Columbia senior who participated in the class.

The full article in Fast Company can be seen HERE.

Report: Black girls disproportionately disciplined at school

Black girls in New York City schools are disciplined and suspended 10 times more often than their white counterparts, a report released this week found.

Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected, published by the African American Policy Forum and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia Law School, also found that 90 percent of all girls expelled from New York City schools in 2011-2012 were black — no white girls were expelled.

These findings are especially troubling considering the demonstrated relationship between school discipline and subsequent incarceration.

“The disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates for black girls reflect an overlooked crisis that affects not only their life chances, but also the well-being of their families, their communities, and society as a whole,” the report says.

Most of the prior research on this issue has focused exclusively on black boys. Though more boys than girls are suspended overall, race appears to be a more significant risk factor for girls than for boys: nationwide, black boys are suspended three times more often than their white counterparts, versus a 6 to 1 ratio for girls.

The authors recommend comprehensive reforms including increasing availability of school counseling services, training teachers to recognize signs of trauma and creating more programs targeted to pregnant and parenting students.

The report is available online here.

Beyond the Bars 2016 – Save the Date: March 4-6

The 6th Annual Justice Conference at Columbia University

BEYOND THE BARS Connecting the Struggles


The 6th annual Beyond the Bars Conference will take place March 4-6, 2016 at Columbia University. This year’s conference, Connecting the Struggles, aims to connect the many ways in which mass incarceration has impacted individuals, families and communities across the U.S, and beyond, as well as build connections across diverse struggles for social justice.

Albert Einstein stated that imagination is more powerful than knowledge ––Our comrade and sister Angela Davis, challenged us to imagine a world without prison. Join us as we honor the spirit of the struggle – join in solidarity with impacted people, and with academics, activists, practitioners and community members as we continue to connect the struggles in the efforts to eradicate mass incarceration.

Conference Schedule

Friday March 4th: Conference Kick Off Event with Angela Davis

Saturday March 5th: Panels and Breakout Sessions 

Sunday March 6th: Building the Grassroots – Organizing Workshops 

Conference Registration will begin in February 2016
As always the conference is free and open to the public

For More information about the conference click the link below:

Call for Workshop Proposals for Sunday March 6th

Have an idea for a workshop? We’re accepting workshop applications now [click here for more information]. Please apply by Friday January 29th.

Beyond the Bars is organized by the Criminal Justice Caucus at the Columbia School of Social Work, the Center for Justice at Columbia University, and the Beyond The Bars Fellows.

To receive updates from the Center for Justice join our listserve by signing up HERE.

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