The Eye

A Liberal Arts Education in Prison

Isaac Scott, a student at the School of General Studies, grew up 10 blocks away from Columbia, on West 104th Street. As a child, he would walk by the Morningside campus with his mother regularly, “either going up Broadway or coming down Amsterdam.” Even so, he never actually passed through Columbia’s (imposing, but generally open) gates or walked down College Walk. He was well into adulthood when he visited campus for the first time, with nearly eight years as an inmate in the New York State prison system behind him.

Before his acceptance into General Studies this year, Scott was a student in the  Justice-in-Education Initiative, a collaboration between the Center for Justice and the Heyman Center for the Humanities, along with the Media and Idea Lab of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, that provides classes taught by Columbia instructors to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. The courses for incarcerated students are taught in the Taconic and Sing Sing correctional facilities.  

A humanities seminar for former prisoners brought Scott to Hamilton Hall in the summer of 2015, where Columbia professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta and doctoral candidate Emily Hainze taught Othello and the Odyssey, among other texts. This was the first Justice-in-Education class for formerly incarcerated students.

“To be on campus taking that class was really amazing, even though this was right up the street from where I grew up,” Scott says. “I feel like I’m in another world, and it’s just really opened me up to opportunities.”

Peralta and Hainze’s Hamilton seminar, though, is just one of many. Other Columbia periodically instructors travel to Rikers Island and New York state prisons to teach classes to people who are currently incarcerated. Laura Ciolkowski, a professor in English and comparative literature, would travel two hours upstate to Taconic, where she taught a version of Literature Humanities, the class required for all Columbia College students. Nicole Gervasio, a Ph.D. candidate in English and comparative literature, also went to Taconic to be a teaching assistant for Ciolkowski’s class, along with Ph.D. student in oral history Margaret Gooding-Silverwood.

“As a faculty member, we learn about the program, and I’ve always been interested in teaching different populations of students,” Ciolkowski says. “I’m especially interested in teaching through a social justice lens. So it’s been a phenomenal experience, it really has.”

Once in the classroom, instructors like Ciolkowski teach groups of students that are probably more diverse (pardon the empty buzzword) than any Columbia admissions brochure. The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision identifies 24 percent of the inmates under custody in the state as Hispanic and almost half as African American. Many of these people are in prison as a product of a well-documented school-to-prison pipeline; they come from public schools that offer fewer AP classes than many Columbia students took in their first year of high school.

“These [students] are coming from a situation where education is really looked at as a unique privilege, because in order to be able to participate in classes they need to be able to maintain a certain level of good behavior,” Gervasio says. “When they were outside of prison, for a lot of them, education was not something that they considered to be an option.”

For most inmates, a rigorous Ivy League education was even less of an option. Even during his time in the Justice-in-Education class on campus, it took Scott a while to process that this was what he was getting.

“When I got my grades I had asked that question, ‘Are you guys grading us at the regular standard?’” Scott says. “And they looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘Why would we [grade you below the regular standard?] You wouldn’t get anything from that.’ I guess I underestimated myself.”

According to Ciolkowski, students in the Justice-in-Education program are also diverse in that they have “a wildly different series of experiences” behind them, compared to the average Columbia undergraduate. Ciolkowski told me that many of her students at Taconic are mothers, (59.3 percent of inmates under custody in New York are parents, including Scott) and that they read the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, about Demeter and her daughter Persephone, through that lens.

“There are many different ways of engaging with this text and I’ve taught it [at Columbia] multiple times,” Ciolkowski says. “It’s always a really great text to open up ancient issues and other things. In the Taconic class, motherhood was the filter. And it was a very powerful text for these students about motherhood and loss and resistance.”

In another class, in which students studied the Odyssey—the Greek story of Odysseus’ homecoming after the fall of Troy—Ciolkowski asked her Taconic students to chart their own odysseys. For many of them, homecoming meant release from prison. And just as Odysseus returns to a changed Ithaca, many members of the class, especially those with longer sentences, expected to return to a New York different than the one they left.

Leyla Martinez is a mother and, like Scott, now a formerly incarcerated student at General Studies. She took Peralta and Hainze’s class at Columbia and remembers the value of taking a class with a group of students who were all formerly incarcerated.

“To be able to be in a room with people who all understood exactly where I was at, it’s something that’s great,” Martinez says. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just really great for me when I’m around people that are formerly incarcerated. I feel like I’m around family.”

Classes at Taconic become similarly close-knit.

“Life in the prison is about being a number, being really dehumanized, not being a thinking individual,” Ciolkowski says. “Life in the classroom is precisely the opposite of that. I have a student who said on her evaluation form, ‘I come into the classroom and I feel like a human being.’”

Similarly, teaching incarcerated people can provide them with a respite from prison life.

“The things we emphasize in a seminar classroom—questioning, challenging, claiming one's right to speak, engaging with texts in an analytical way—are discouraged within the prison environment,” Ciolkowski continues. “In order to survive inside easily, you’re discouraged from questioning.”

However, few prisons offer such college classes rooted in the liberal arts. This is mostly a consequence of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, (i.e. that infamous Clinton crime bill) which made prisoners ineligible for Pell Grants—subsidies that the federal government provides to students who need help paying for college. Many correctional facilities offer vocational training instead, teaching inmates trades like masonry and construction.

I interview Scott in the Social Relations Lab on the second floor of Schermerhorn Hall, where he works as a research assistant. “I got about three vocations [in prison]—floor covering, residential electric, and masonry. I can do the lights in here, I can do the carpet, and I can build the building,” he says as he looks around. “But it wasn’t nothing I wanted to do.”

Scott and the professors I spoke to think vocational training works for some people, but that it’s ultimately limiting when prisons offer it as the only education option for inmates.

“For some people, that vocational training is a huge benefit,” says Geraldine Downey, who is director of research at Columbia’s Center for Justice and works with Scott at the Social Relations Lab. “In fact, any education in prisons is a benefit. But one of the things that the liberal arts education does is open people’s minds to a world beyond where they are.”

Gervasio brings up that this dilemma of vocational training versus academics was featured in the new season of Orange Is the New Black. In the show, a proposed program of “core” liberal arts courses is replaced with “Construction 101,” a so-called vocational training program. Inmates are asked to build a new prison dorm for free. On the first day, an inmate asks, “So, wait, is this a job or is this a class?” In Gervasio’s opinion, a liberal arts education is preferable to a vocational one.

“They’re offered education and it ends up being utilitarian,” Gervasio says. “And I think that’s the number one reason. A liberal arts education is far less utilitarian. … But I think that when you deliver [vocational training] in the carceral context as the only kind of education that the minds of people who are in that setting merit, then you are sending the message that they still are forever fated to occupy a ‘lower rank’ of society.”

Prison education advocates generally agree with Gervasio: A liberal arts education offers more opportunities for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. It also lowers recidivism rates; Hudson Link, a prison education program that partners with the Center for Justice for the Taconic program, reports a recidivism rate of less than two percent. (The national re-incarceration rate is 43 percent.)

“Why would we limit the access people have to education if research has proven that the higher a person’s education level, the less likely they are to return to prison?” Martinez asks. “Why don’t we ensure that people obtain an education?”

Amy Jamgochian is a former professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the academic program director at the Prison University Project based at San Quentin State Prison. The PUP was founded in the wake of the 1994 revocation of Pell Grants for prisoners, and today it sponsors a college program funded by donations at San Quentin and connects similar prison education groups across the country.

“There’s a way that I think liberal arts education has to deal with the world opening, whereas vocational training really closes down worlds, says, ‘You have one option, here it is.’” Jamgochian says. “And, I think for the prison population in particular, their worlds have been closed in so many ways; it’s a really incredible thing to open them up again.”

Ciolkowski’s Lit Hum class at Taconic has directly benefited her students there, but it’s also transformed her teaching style. Gervasio echoes how she appreciates the ways in which teaching incarcerated students has impacted her pedagogy. She takes less for granted in the classroom. Knowing that her Taconic students often had limited educational backgrounds (again, the school-to-prison pipeline), she couldn’t assume they had heard of Homer or knew what a pantheon was; now, she approaches her Columbia classes in the same way.

“I think it’s definitely made me a more conscientious and socially conscious teacher,” Gervasio says. “I think I know a lot more and I think a lot more critically about issues like inclusivity, which I always really cared about.”

Scott also notes this phenomenon in his class for formerly incarcerated students.

“I think it was a learning experience for [the professors] as much as it was for us,” he says. “Just to be in a class with us.”

Scott is now at the front of the classroom, teaching art to young adults as the Center for Justice’s Arts and communication specialist. A self-taught artist, he also directs the Confined Arts, a platform for currently and formerly incarcerated artists.

The Justice-in-Education program’s impact on faculty and undergraduates is part of their mission; one of the program’s aims, listed on its website, is to “develop strong curricular support for the effective engagement of Columbia faculty and students in prison and jail education.”

“Our ideas are sort of on two tracks,” Downey says. “One is to teach in the prisons and to have people who have been incarcerated come on campus. But the other is to introduce more of a focus on justice into the undergraduate curriculum.”

The program is working on providing courses on the Morningside campus that “engage contemporary issues of justice,” like mass incarceration. (Downey notes, “like Contemporary Civilization, but really contemporary.”) She also hopes to implement a type of, in her own words, “inside out” program, where traditional undergraduates visit classes for incarcerated individuals.

If anything, Downey feels that the benefits of the program are twofold; it both improves the lives of the Justice-in-Education students and enriches the academic community at Columbia via the transformed pedagogies of instructors like Ciolkowski and Gervasio.

“It’s a way of connecting to the community, and I think that it’s kind of like double discovery, that the enrichment goes both ways. … I wouldn’t view it as giving back, but that we’re engaging in citizenship together,” Downey says.

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