Education and Incarceration was an event hosted by the Human Rights department, and was led by none other than Bwog’s own Sarah Dahl and featured a panel of Professors with the Justice-in-Education initiative as well as prison rights advocates. Avid The Night Of watcher and Staff Writer Megan Wylie checked it out. 

The role of education and prison, as well as prison reform in general, has been an increasingly popular issue in the political world due to the country’s dependence on the prison industrial complex. This particular panel focused on the role of university professors and outreach efforts to maximum security prisons. The two Columbia professors on the panel were noted prison advocates Achille Varzi and Christia Mercer. Also present was Danny Li, a Columbia senior who has dedicated his time to teaching debate at Rikers Island every week, whose passion for teaching inmates debate skill helped him organize excursions to Albany and cross-prison debate competitions for the participants. The panel also featured Aisha Elliott, a formerly incarcerated student and prison education advocate.

I’m pretty sure this type of cell isn’t used anymore, but you get the point

Mercer began the event by presenting staggering statistics regarding prison populations in the US and the disproportional targeting of people of color and people below the poverty line. The entire system favors the white and privileged, from the criminal justice system to the bail-bond process, and this is clear in the rates of incarceration in relation to race and income. In addition, due to the climates of prison, rates of reincarceration are extremely high since inmates are released into society without being rehabilitated or educated by the state, and face rampant discrimination.

Varzi and Mercer started teaching at the maximum-security Bedford Hills Correctional Center as well as Taconic medium-security Correctional Facility on a volunteer basis since there is a lack of funding for prison education programs. One of the inmates they both taught is Aisha Elliott, who was given a 25 to life sentence for second-degree murder and was eventually released in June of 2016. While she could have joined what she called the “riff-raf,” she decided to get her GED and then worked with the prison administration in order to get colleges in the area to offer courses to the inmates.

Elliott is charming and funny, and her story provides insight into the successes of former inmates who receive access to education. She earned her degree and now works as an electrician in the Brooklyn Tunnel, where she is one of only a couple of female employees. When she walked into the room, she wore her construction helmet with pride, and then told the crowded room that she did not want to take it off because it was “cool”, but also because she said it shows young girls that there are women in the construction industry too. The stories she recounted were funny and touching at the same time, from answering her children’s questions about every aspect of her life whether it be about sex, drugs or criminal activities, to talking about walking across the prison gymnasium to receive her diploma with her family cheering her on. Besides leading an initiative to provide education to inmates, she was adamant in explaining how she used her imprisonment and this education to self-actualize herself in relation to the crime she committed and all those who were affected.

Elliott’s story was captivating, as it gave students within the relative Columbia bubble a glimpse into how life is for people who do not have access to the same opportunities we have access to at this amazing university. It also provided evidence for the success that comes from simple prison reform, and the effect it has on the lives of prisoners upon their release, especially considering the rate of reincarceration plummets for inmates who take classes while serving their sentence.