Columbia Behind Bars
Updated: Mar 2
Justice-in-Education brings professors and students to New York City prisons and formerly incarcerated people to Columbia
By Dominy Gallo
“It’s not about you. It’s about them. And you’re not saving them. You’re just helping create a space in which they can save themselves.”
This is part of Professor Christia Mercer’s “pedagogy of dignity,” with which she trainsstudents to teach three-week-long courses in prisons, part of Columbia’s Justice-in-Education Initiative. Run jointly by the Center for Justice and the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities, the Initiative aims to bring educational opportunities to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and to incorporate justice studies into Columbia’s curriculum.
Mercer, the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy, designed, funds, and runs her own program under the auspices of the Initiative. “The idea was to have classes that were available to anyone who wanted to come regardless of educational level,” she told me recently, reclining on a sofa in her office. “The hope was that they would come from the same sort of section of the prison, so they would kind of create a community over a book or a course.”
“Can you see that woman, the blonde, blueeyed person over there?” She pointed to a photograph pinned on the wall in the corner of her office. “She was a senior Women’s Studies major the first year I taught in Taconic”—one of the first correctional facilities that the Initiative served.
The woman, Mercer told me, inspired her to incorporate the methodology of Theater of the Oppressed into her educational program. “The point of Theater of the Oppressed,” she told me, “is to break down hierarchies and to reconsider the space in a theater between audience and performers, so everybody’s kind of a performer.” She added that the exercises “are supposed to create a space where everybody has a kind of dignity.”
Professor Mercer went on to describe some of the exercises they do to break down the boundaries, like racing to be the last person to reach the opposite wall, and how she keeps the classes small to dissolve the professor-student hierarchy that lectures frequently foster. “What people say,” she told me, “is that it’s the first time since they entered the criminal justice system when they felt free.”
Teary-eyed, she reflected upon two former students who have become her friends, both of whom came to speak to students in Philosophy & Feminism, Professor Mercer’s impossible-to-get-off-the-waitlist course. “They are brilliant. And they would be—I can’t let myself get upset here—but, in other circumstances, they would be CEOs or professors. And so the fact that they lived such horrible lives, but had these amazing capacities…” She trailed off.
Professor Eileen Gillooly, Executive Director of the Heyman Center for the Humanities, and Professor Nicole Callahan, a Lecture in Contemporary Civilization, shared with me stories from the Initiative’s projects on campus, rather than “inside,” as Professor Mercer described work conducted in prisons. For five years, Callahan has taught a class called Humanities Texts, Critical Skills, which comprises 50% Columbia and Barnard undergraduates and 50% formerly incarcerated students, called Justice-in-Education Scholars.
The class was designed to facilitate, as Callahan put it, “encounters with texts that are considered canonical, whatever that means, and as we broaden the meaning of that.” Professor Gillooly added that the idea was “to look at some of these texts that have been with us for a very long time that allow us to get at perennial questions in ways that have been fruitful for, sometimes, millennia. The questions really don’t change very much—the conflicts between self and society, obligations to community, what is justice.”
Callahan continued, “the idea is [to read] texts that provoke really difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions about justice, about freedom, about whether we are in control of the things that happen to us or whether determinism or fate are things that control us in our lives.” Mercer had mentioned teaching, in three weeks, Antigone or The Epic of Gilgamesh in Metropolitan Correctional Facility; Professor Callahan detailed a semester-long syllabus containing Malcolm X’s autobiography, Shakespeare’s Othello, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Homer’s Odyssey, and Morrison’s Song of Solomon, among others.
Callahan described the atmosphere in her classroom: “I think the first few classes, there’s actually a lot of mutual intimidation. I find that often the ‘J scholars’ are intimidated by the idea of a Columbia undergraduate and all the things that they will know, and the Columbia undergraduates are, I think, wonderfully careful to make space, and also intimidated just by the lived experience that people have had.” She described the thoughtful effort made on both sides to “blend the boundaries” until the students become an intensely connected and cohesive community. Gillooly recounted the endeavors of some of the program’s formerly incarcerated alumni, many of whom have had something akin to a conversion experience while imprisoned. “One of our ‘J-scholars’ is a pastor now,” and others pursue degrees in theology. “There’s this kind of educational conversion experience, which is that they realize that school isn’t just punitive. There really is a kind of new world opened.”
These heartwarming stories paint a picture of education’s capacity to spiritually, emotionally, and materially transform incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. But a chronic shortage of money limits the Initiative’s ability to offer those educational opportunities. Gillooly described how the Mellon Foundation provided the seed grant in 2015 that established the Initiative and awarded a second grant in 2018, which allowed both the Prison Education Program and the Scholars Program to grow. Mercer, however, noted that, for her program, it “seems like I spend half my time applying for funding.” She personally gathers funds not only to run the classes themselves, but to provide free books, folders emblazoned with the Columbia insignia, pads, and certificates of completion to all of her students.
Mercer expressed a concern worthy of attention: that Columbia “brags” about the Initiative and other programs like it, but fails to fund them adequately. Many of these programs rely largely or entirely on outside funds raised by the faculty. And it’s clear why funding is so crucial to Mercer and educators like her. “Teaching in prisons,” Mercer told me, “has really transformed my life. I just understand so much more about all the topics in Philosophy & Feminism: how power works, how bodies are marked, and how bias works.”
Illustration by Rea Rustagi