This spring semester, a group of approximately 15 undergraduate women from SUNY New Paltz came together to collaborate on a workshop for the young women at Columbia Girls Secure Facility in Claverack, New York. Columbia Girls is a juvenile facility where young women between the ages of 13 and 15 who are accused of serious felonies and sentenced as adults are sent. If they still have time left on their sentence by the time they they turn 21–and many of them do–they are transferred to the New York State Department of Corrections. There are approximately eight young women in the facility now, although it has a capacity of 25 beds.
The women of New Paltz who devised the workshops brought a variety of different perspectives to the table. The women represent a range of majors, from Black Studies, to Sociology, Political Science, Art, and Communication and Media. They are members of a wide number of student organizations–from Urban Lyrics, to the African Women’s Alliance, Fahari Libertad, the Black Studies Student Association, to Chi Upsilon Sigma, and the Student Association. The first workshop centered around the idea of the higher self, which included presentations by New Paltz students on women who had been incarcerated as well as a poetry workshop. The second workshop, building on the first, centered around the theme of Sankofa, or the need to reach back to the past to comprehend one’s present.
“The Columbia Girls workshops were not only an opportunity for students to share what they have learned in the classroom with the young women at the facility, but it was also an opportunity for the students and for me as a faculty member to see the possibilities of dialogue between those on the ‘inside’ and those on the ‘outside’ as a means of facilitating an understanding of the dignity and humanity of those behind bars,” said Assistant Professor of Sociology Alexandra Cox. “This galvanized me and the students: one student took the initiative to plan an on-campus event on the effects of incarceration on women, which took place on Friday May 2nd, and convinced her sorority to take on the issue of women’s incarceration as the cause that their sorority would work on in the coming year.” The students and Cox plan to continue these visits on a regular basis starting in the fall.
Since she began teaching at New Paltz, Cox has taken her students each semester to a secure boy’s facility called Brookwood to engage in joint college classes. “These trips have helped to inform my students’ understandings of incarceration and have opened their eyes about the experiences of young people behind bars,” noted Cox. “The trips to Columbia, however, were an opportunity for me to sit back and learn from our students about the ways they were able to infuse their curriculum with both their intellectual and personal understandings about the role of identity in shaping our social sympathies.”