Previously incarcerated students from St. Francis College’s Post-Prison Program now on the cusp of earning their undergraduate degrees recently followed a May 1 screening of Rikers: An American Jail with a frank discussion on their experiences behind bars, at Rikers and other institutions.
Nearly 100 guests, including a large group of St. Francis faculty and students, attended the screening and stayed on for the panel discussion.
Johnny Perez, class of 2018, who spent 13 years behind bars and expects to graduate with a degree in Criminal Justice in January, moderated the panel. Perez has become a leading advocate on ending the use of solitary confinement. He now works at the Urban Justice Center as a Safe Reentry Advocate.
Earlier this year, Perez was appointed to the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where he has testified at numerous hearings, including before City Council and at the United Nations.
Three other students took part in the discussion.
Arielle Pierre, class of 2018 and a Sociology and Criminal Justice major, said that enrolling at St. Francis after prison probably stopped her from getting into trouble again and that it was inspiring to be doing course work. She takes it much more seriously than before she was arrested.
Felix Colon, class of 2018, is studying criminal justice. He spent three years in Rikers before being moved to upstate prisons. He recently received some good news, because of his exemplary behavior he was released from lifetime parole.
Gabriel Grande, class of 2020, a Business Management major, talked about being a 16 year old thrust into a world of adults and told to be a man to survive. Now that he is out, he realizes prison has changed him and he needs to overcome those challenges.
Joining the students on the panel were members of the NYU Law School Prisoners’ Rights and Education Project (PREP) which co-sponsored the event with St. Francis College.
Victoria Wenger, a student at NYU Law said that law school classes fail to offer context on the effects of incarceration on families and society as a whole and that only by meeting the people affected can you understand the impact of criminal laws and the prison system.
Defense attorney at the Center for Appellate Litigation, Anokhi Shah, an NYU Law graduate and co-founder of PREP added that help with re-entry into mainstream society is a forgotten part of the prison process, but it can be the most important piece because of the many constraints and stigmas that are attached to people who served time.
Both Shah and Wenger said that their involvement with the students in the St. Francis program taught them as much as many of their classes at NYU Law about the real effects of the criminal justice system.
The post-prison opportunity program is co-directed by members of the Sociology & Criminal Justice and History departments at St. Francis.
Founder and co-director Dr. Emily Horowitz is thrilled that a new group of students with criminal histories will be starting at St. Francis this fall.
“These students need our help, and our faculty and community welcome them and provide support so they successfully re-enter society after prison,” said Professor Horowitz. “At the same time, our faculty, students, and community learn so much from these students, and they help us much more than we help them. They allow us to see the human casualties of our system of mass incarceration.”