As described by John Jay College of Criminal Justice President Jeremy Travis in his Opening Sessions address to the LaGuardia community on 3 March 2016, the U.S. prison population has exploded since 1980. “Historically unprecedented and internationally unique,” the staggering increase in U.S. incarceration over the last three decades has underscored wide disparities in race and education. Reaching into all levels of society and manifested in all forms of daily life, these inequities affect all citizens inside or outside of the carceral system. Under the leadership of President Mellow, LaGuardia has embarked on a renewed commitment to confront the “prison binge” as the civil rights issue of our time.
Since last spring, the President’s Working Committee on Prison Reform has focused on the needs of formerly incarcerated LaGuardia students and students whose family members are currently or formerly incarcerated. As a WCPR member, I serve as a representative to the UFS Committee on Education and Incarceration; and in collaboration with staff and faculty from across the college, I have designed and organized the facilitation of formerly incarcerated student focus groups and community board round table discussions whose participants include librarians, imams, rabbis, professors, and formerly incarcerated doctoral candidates and drug counselors. At the moment, the Committee and Ping Chong and Company are exploring the possibility of bringing our students and their stories of incarceration to the stage. All these individuals are united by the goal to identify and mobilize educational and vocational resources on behalf of those who, in Michelle Alexander’s words, are “locked up and locked out” by a process largely determined by factors of race, class, and gender.
My experience with incarceration is both professional and personal. As a young student during the “first” civil rights movement, I visited a prison with my mentor, a young MIT doctoral student and political activist. Those were the days of George Jackson and Angela Davis, the trials of the Chicago 7, and the murders at Kent State. Down through the years, I’ve heard the sound of the penitentiary doors slamming shut behind me. I heard those doors again when, as a doctoral student myself, I accepted a position to teach film history for a year to men serving time in Salem, Oregon’s maximum security prison. Before I left, they presented me with a little hand-written plaque: “Just remember: some of us have to be crooks. Not all of us can be movie stars.” In the pith and wit of that aphorism is a world of insight and pain.
My personal experience has brought me to this work, too. An “at-risk” girl, I missed delinquency by a hair, saved by the care and compassion of teachers. My cousins weren’t as lucky; two are dead, both murdered in circumstances related to drugs, imprisonment, and parole. Their families are marked by a trauma that many of our LaGuardia students share. In my Critical Thinking class and First Year Seminar, students have spontaneously identified as formerly incarcerated or as having family members in prison. Committed to their welfare and inspired by their transparency and humility, I just want to join with others, from ACE to Academic and Student Affairs, in testifying to their struggles and achievements.
The President’s Working Committee on Prison Reform engages all dimensions of the campus to promote vocational, educational, and restorative opportunities, services, and supports for students making the transition from cell to classroom. We invite you to join us.