Updated: Mar 2, 2021
By Larkin White
Preparing for my interview with Anna Sugrue, a Barnard senior passionate about prison abolition, I perused the internet for the most incisive questions I could find to perfectly capture her essence. Naturally, this led me to the Times’ “36 Questions That Lead to Love,” which I got caught up reading moments before my interview. Sugrue spotted the open tab on my computer and laughed. “What’s your idea of a perfect day?” lay at the top of my list of questions. “I think I’ll skip that one,” she said, smiling, and instead launched into an extensive discussion of her work combating the many flaws of the U.S. criminal justice system.
During Sugrue’s first two years at Columbia, she was involved with Design for America, through which she worked with the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), a nonprofit that exposes broken windows policing by monitoring misdemeanor court cases, and Reflect, a student organization dedicated to improving and destigmatizing mental health treatment. But over time, she became disillusioned by the organizations. “For me, it always comes back to everything has to change,” Sugrue said, discouraged by the stunted rate of progress. She quit and started working directly for PROP, where she was so successful that the court monitoring reports she compiled were picked up by Politico.
Illustration by Rea Rustagi
Sugrue’s work for PROP showed her that the prison-industrial complex is driven by the same pressures that underlie Columbia’s mental health crisis: “This feeling that we need to be productive and white and normative at all costs.” But, Sugrue said, her work for PROP was tangible in a way that her mental health work had never been. Through the Guggenheim Fellowship, she landed an internship working for Brooklyn Defender Services the summer after her sophomore year. During her junior year, she joined the Executive Board of the Barnard Criminal Justice initiative, eventually taking charge this year and renaming it the Barnard Prison Abolition Collective to more accurately reflect the organization’s politics and intentions.
Sugrue’s activism has become especially personal in the last year thanks to her friendship with a formerly incarcerated man named David. Last year, Sugrue and David took a class together through the Justice-in-Education Initiative, run by Columbia’s Center for Justice. The class was split evenly between formerly incarcerated people and Columbia students, enabling her to meet David, who had spent ten years in federal prison in Texas. Sugrue spoke with David every day after class about his life and his many plans for criminal justice work. Halfway through the semester, David was suddenly reincarcerated for being 16 minutes late to a meeting with his parole officer. He spent four months in prison in Brooklyn, where Sugrue called him every week. Recounting this story made her visibly upset.
As Sugrue explained to me, in federal prison, if an inmate is mistreated in any way and wants the prison to be held accountable, they file what is called an administrative remedy. While David was in prison in Texas, he filed administrative remedies for inmates who didn’t know how. He continued to help other inmates even after he moved to a halfway house in New York. They both believe that his reincarceration was a response to David’s work. Now, considering his vulnerable position, David no longer feels safe doing this work, which has motivated what is now the capstone project of Sugrue’s criminal justice activism at Columbia.
With Sugrue, he formed the Student Justice League, an organization that trains students to file administrative remedies on behalf of inmates in federal prison. Sugrue said the goal is to “harness our time, our resources, our privilege, and our intelligence to hold prison administrations more accountable,” and to “bring humanity back into the system in a very powerful way.” It offers students the ability to leverage their insulation from the criminal justice system against carceral malpractice, providing a much-needed voice for individual prisoners and their experiences.