Seven Formerly Incarcerated Students Graduate from Columbia

May 16, 2022

This year, seven formerly incarcerated students affiliated with Columbia's Center for Justice will graduate from the university.

Original article posted to Columbia News

The Center for Justice Paves a Path to Reentry for Formerly Incarcerated Students

This year, seven formerly incarcerated students affiliated with Columbia's Center for Justice will graduate from the university.

By Caroline Harting
May 13, 2022

Jarrell Daniels was 18 in 2012, when the police came to his mother’s apartment in the South Bronx where he was living at the time. He had been arrested before, but those prior arrests happened out on the street for minor infractions, never at his home. This time was different, and he knew that he “wasn’t going to be going home for a long time.” 

After spending a year in Rikers Island jail awaiting trial, he was sentenced to six years in state prison, and he was anxious about what to expect. “I was a member of a gang in the streets but gang culture was much different inside of prison,” Daniels recalled. 

Fortunately, he found a mentor at Bare Hill, a medium-security correctional facility in upstate New York, who helped him to start planning for a future beyond bars. Next week, Daniels and six other formerly incarcerated students— including Christopher Medina Kirschner (GSAS’22), Stephen Matthews (MSPH’22), Annie O’Connell (GS’22), and Isaac Scott (GS’22)—will graduate from Columbia, thanks in part to the university's Center for Justice. In addition, the staff of the Center for Justice will celebrate Aedan Macdonald (GS’21) this month, since they weren’t able to do so last year because of COVID restrictions.

Geraldine Downey, professor of psychology, along with Cheryl Wilkins and the late Kathy Boudin, founded the Center for Justice in 2014. Informed by what Wilkins and Boudin witnessed when they served time in Bedford Hills prison and what Downey observed when she taught there on behalf of the School of General Studies, the women wanted to offer Columbia classes in prisons and to people returning from incarceration.

“Too often, even after people have served sentences for their crimes, the extreme lack of opportunities gets in the way of a successful future. We know, however, that a college education is the best known protection against returning to prison,” Downey said. 

What helped Daniels get to this point where he was graduating with a degree from Columbia? Months before his release from Bare Hill, he was transferred to Queensboro Correctional Facility, where he took a class, “Inside Criminal Justice,” that was taught by Lucy Lang (LAW’06), former Manhattan assistant district attorney, and Downey, the Niven Professor of Humane Letters in Psychology and director of the Center for Justice. Daniels was struck by how Lang and Downey created a course in which incarcerated students work with Manhattan assistant district attorneys to develop policy proposals intended to transform the criminal justice system. Inspired by this class, in 2019, one year after coming home from prison, Daniels launched the Justice Ambassadors Youth Council at the Center for Justice.

That "Inside Criminal Justice" class, and many others, has been offered through the Justice in Education (JIE) program, a partnership between the Center for Justice and the Heyman Center for the Humanities and the School of Professional Studies. The JIE program has two components, one of which is the Prison Ed Program, where Columbia faculty members teach courses to incarcerated students. This program serves as many as 180 students every year. Currently, there are 10 Columbia faculty members who teach humanities, social sciences, philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, and fiction writing in six New York State jails and prisons. Credits awarded by the School of Professional Studies can be applied toward degrees from partner institutions.

The Justice in Education Scholars program, which is the other component of JIE, provides opportunities to formerly incarcerated individuals to enroll at Columbia. Prospective students apply to the program and are accepted into an initial course based on a rigorous review to ensure that the program provides a good fit for their needs. Similar to other Columbia students, applicants who are accepted as JIE Scholars are provided with the academic and "wrap-around" support that promotes success. Some then apply to the School of General Studies.

“People like me, Jarrell and others who are graduating from college and post-secondary education programs are unicorns," said Stephen Matthews. He is grateful to Columbia and to Robert Fullilove, professor of sociomedical sciences and social work, who he studied with through the Bard Prison Initiative. But as someone who will earn his MPH degree from the Mailman School of Public Health this month, after serving 25 years in prison, he knows how difficult reentry can be. "Unicorns, to exist, must have people believe in them. Our family, friends, supporters, and Columbia believed in us." He would like to see others have the opportunity to excel like he has.

“And here’s the thing,” said Downey. "Our programs don’t just benefit the formerly incarcerated. Our JIE students enrich the college experience for everyone by bringing invaluable knowledge and perspectives to the Columbia community through their lived experiences and academic excellence.” Daniels and Matthews wholeheartedly agree.