Rikers Education Program.

The Rikers Education Program (REP) provides opportunities for people at Rikers Island, and Columbia University students and faculty to engage in college-oriented education programming. REP offers one college-credit course each semester in a variety of topics, including creative writing, art history, literature, sociology, and philosophy.

Throughout the year, Columbia volunteers and community partners offer workshops on topics including art, creative writing, and philosophy to incarcerated men and women, ages 18 and up. Through arts and humanities programming that incorporates social justice issues, REP seeks to kindle the interest of incarcerated adults in education, while encouraging reflections on justice and social responsibility. We aim to increase access to quality education for people who are incarcerated in order to develop culturally responsive education programming, cultivate positive social-emotional development, and support students to think critically about issues of social justice.

JIE offers weekly two-hour workshops to people incarcerated on Rikers Island. The workshops are voluntary for participants and are facilitated by volunteers from Columbia University and some of JIE’s community partners. If your group is interested in partnering or you are interested in volunteering, please visit the Volunteer page.

Bi-weekly meetings are centered around discussion questions and writing prompts which serve to stretch participants’ thinking in terms of content and perspectives. All books are provided to participants and are available in English and Spanish.

Participants learn about contemporary artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Chris Ofili, Ed Clark and Carmen Herrera, and then make original works of art inspired by them. Techniques for using acrylic paint and collage will be introduced.

Critical thinking discussion group. Philosophers lead discussions about topics like authenticity, democracy, truth, moral responsibility, power, sexism, testimony, and more.

Columbia’s Justice-in-Education Program collaborates with ARTE to engage young men and women to reflect on global equality and human rights through art. Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE) engages young people to amplify their voices and organize for human rights change through the visual arts. Using art, design, and technology, ARTE students develop creative projects that bring awareness of local and global human rights challenges. In this workshop, students will learn about the life and legacy of prominent heroes like Malala Yousafzai and Michelle Obama. Through interactive games and art activities, students have the opportunity to learn about the global movement for equality and reflect on the inspirational qualities of global leaders.

JIE offers weekly two-hour workshops to people incarcerated on Rikers Island. The workshops are voluntary for participants and are facilitated by volunteers from Columbia University and some of JIE’s community partners. If your group is interested in partnering or you are interested in volunteering, please visit the Volunteer page.

Additional workshops are added in response to participant requests.

Each semester at Rikers Island, JIE offers a college course for credit through the School of Professional Studies. Columbia graduate students and faculty teach the courses, which are free to students. All books are writing materials are provided. In addition, JIE partners with the Petey Greene Program to offer tutoring sessions three times a week.

Almost 100 incarcerated people have earned college credits while detained at Rikers, some taking as many as three courses and earning 12 credits. These credits can be transferred to the college of their choice, or if they apply and are accepted to a degree program at Columbia University, the credits will count towards their degree.

Recent college courses include:

Students talk about some big questions that everyone wrestles with: what is the good of being good? How should people treat each other? What does a just society look like? In what ways is society unjust and how can it be improved?

The aim of this course is to introduce–or reintroduce–students to some big topics and ideas in ethics and political theory. After spending the first day discussing what philosophy is, students will engage in philosophical dialogue with one another, reading and discussing influential philosophical texts, and working to develop skills of critical thinking, textual interpretation, intellectual creativity, persuasive argumentative writing, and self-expression. Discussions will center on questions about the good life and the ways in which people can work to realize it for themselves, those they care about, and the society and world as a whole. Students leave the class intellectually empowered and confident in their abilities to read, interpret, and assess difficult philosophical texts, and to articulate their own viewpoints to themselves and others.

Students learn the styles and techniques —  narration, dialogue, and descriptions — that will enable them to communicate and connect with their readers in a meaningful way. They read short stories and excerpts from longer works and carefully analyze and critique the use of these techniques so that they can walk away with a better understanding of how to reach their audience. They experiment with these concepts in written exercises, and these assignments will be discussed informally in workshops. They will write on a regular schedule, critique their classmates’ efforts and use these conversations as an experiment with these concepts in written exercises, and these assignments will be discussed informally in workshops.
By the end of this course, students will be better equipped to convey, organize and carefully critique the words they are inspired to write. And most importantly they will be even more enthusiastic about the power of their own voice.

Organizations play a vital role in nearly every aspect of human life, from mundane tasks like walking dogs, washing clothes, and booking vacations to complicated duties like managing finances, providing healthcare, and keeping communities safe. Organizations fail for a variety of reasons, including mistakes, misconduct, and disaster. Through this course, students come to understand more fully how and why organizations fail. Students study how organizations form, operate, develop networks, cultures, and systems, and theories associated with organizations and organizational failure. Through analyzing case studies, academic papers, and articles from popular media associated with organizational failure, students enhance their analytical skills and understand the complex organizational decisions and the ramifications of systemic failures.

Incarcerated Yet Inspired is a cross-genre creative writing seminar offered through Columbia University’s Justice-In-Education Initiative. Over the course of the semester, students conducted a close reading of literary works that are based on the lives of individuals who have been ostracized, incarcerated, and isolated from their communities. While some of the writers studied have been personally affected by the criminal justice system, others have drawn upon their research, observations, and experiences working in the system to tell a compelling story. Through weekly analysis and discussion, the class explored the thematic elements and artistic choices each writer employs in their work. This course exposed students to other creatives who have used their life situations as an opportunity to find their voice, speak their minds, and change the world around them.

The course was taught by Professor Chris Wolfe. Professor Wolfe spent 6 years as an Army officer, including a tour in Iraq in 2003. During his deployment, he discovered his love for writing and the arts. Afterward, he attended business school at Duke University and went on to work in finance for approximately 6 years. He decided to leave the finance profession to earn his MFA in the Creative Writing Program at Columbia University.

New York is a city filled with art. It can be found in the city’s many museums and galleries, but it also surrounds us in ways we might not always notice—as murals and graffiti on the city’s walls, streets, and subway stations, or as monuments in parks. 

This course is about the art of New York City. It explores how New York became one of the most important places in the world to make and see art. The class explored how artists across New York’s five boroughs made sense of their experience of the city through radical new ways of making art, which in turn changed how they saw the world around them. 

The course tells the story of art in New York over six weeks or “units,” covering one decade per unit. In the 1960s and 70s, artists like Romare Bearden and Faith Ringgold used art as a form of activism for women and people of color. Jean-Michel Basquiat challenged the art world with street art in the 1980s and Félix González-Torres responded to the AIDS crisis with photos and installations in the 1990s. In the 2000s and 2010s, Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley used portraiture to criticize the history of slavery and to celebrate Black lives. 

Over the course of centuries, many definitions of “the liberal arts” have emerged. The definitions mainly suggest that such an education is primarily concerned with acquiring and developing critical methods of intellectual inquiry. That is, developing professional or vocational skills is secondary to learning, practicing, and excelling in the art of asking good questions. In agreement, Angela Davis argues further that a true education tied to the “cultivation of the mind, the spirit, and the body” is one that leads to liberation. 

This course considers the relationship between the liberal arts and liberation through close reading and engaging with different genres of literature—fiction and non-fiction, poetry, novels, essays, and academic articles—that ask the readers to consider the following questions:

  • Who is a teacher?
  • Who is a student?
  • Whose knowledge matters? Why does knowledge matter?
  • How do we know what we know? 
  • What is the difference between knowledge and education?
  • What is necessary for education to be liberatory?
  • When is education not liberatory?
  • …and more.

Rikers Education Program Gallery