On a recent evening, as the Manhattan district attorney looked on, five prosecutors from the office received certificates for completing a semester-long course called Inside Criminal Justice. But what made the ceremony and the course unique were the class's other students: five convicted felons who had served their time and were now free.
“It was surreal,” said Anthony Sims, one of the students, who recently completed a 25-year sentence for murder. “I would've never thought that I would've been in the classroom surrounded with incarcerated individuals and ADAs [assistant district attorneys], some of the ADAs that could have possibly put some of us in prison.”
Instructor Marya Schock said the six-week course was created by state Inspector General Lucy Lang during her tenure as the executive director of the Manhattan DA Academy – a resource hub and continuing education program for lawyers and others working in public policy – and Professor Geraldine Downey, director of the Columbia Center for Justice. It was inspired by an article about Columbia University’s Prison Education Program.
The first cohort of students took the Inside Criminal Justice class in 2018. That group included eight assistant DAs and eight men who were completing their prison sentences. Classes have been taught at Queensboro Correctional Facility and Rikers Island.
“Everyone saw the importance of involving the people most directly impacted by criminal justice system policies in transforming the system,” said Schock. She said that while the pandemic has limited the number of students who can take the course, it had "an abundance of ADAs who want to participate.”
The course is a joint venture of the “Manhattan DA Academy,” the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the Center for Justice at Columbia University. The course syllabus describes it as a novel effort to create “in-depth and respectful conversation’ between prosecutors and those on the receiving end of the justice system.
Students included Zoe Shea, an assistant DA who serves as chief of the Alternatives to Incarceration unit at the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
“As prosecutors, we don't spend a lot of time thinking or interacting with people who are incarcerated,” said Shea, “so we don't see the experience of what it's like to be incarcerated for one year, for two years, for five years, for 25 years. And this is really the first time for prosecutors to have a glimpse into what that experience is like and to learn from people who are incarcerated.”
Her fellow prosecutor, Gloria Garcia, said assistant DAs who participated “had chosen to be there” and walked into the class knowing that the power balance was different from that of a courtroom.
“They're coming into it with a knowledge that they're there to sort of be vulnerable,” said Garcia, the deputy general counsel at the district attorney’s office. “Maybe they're going to be criticized.”
Shane Solomon, a formerly incarcerated student who was released in November, said he was pleasantly surprised by the prosecutors he met in class.
“I was a little reluctant, wondering if they were going to be genuine,” said Solomon. “I found it was really heartfelt and sincere.”
Solomon served two sentences totaling 20 years, for reckless manslaughter and attempted burglary. He’s now completing Bard College’s Prison Initiative, and hopes to eventually work as an advocate for poor and marginalized communities. For him, the course was an opportunity to help expose prosecutors to things they wouldn’t have otherwise known.
“If you come from a community that needs resources and you want to bring attention to some things in your community, you need to be at the table with the people in the hall of power,” he said. “And I think you'd be short-sighted if you dismissed the opportunity to do that.”
In an interview with Gothamist immediately after the ceremony, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said it was important for those who work in his office “to go inside a facility and to to see what incarceration looks like,” and to learn from “the people behind the cases.”
“So it's a real two-way dialogue,” he said.
After witnessing several years of a nationwide push for criminal justice reform, including in the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Bragg said “we’ve seen recoil, and I think the challenge now is not to go back to a one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all, incarceration is the answer to everything” approach.
The event honored 35-year-old Kenneth Murphy, a participant in the class who received his certificate posthumously. Murphy was released on Dec. 8, only to be shot dead on Dec. 27 while seated in a parked car in St. Albans, Queens.
Murphy's classmates described him as “warm” and a voracious reader. His mother, Jacquelyn Hill, who attended the ceremony, said Murphy was planning to start a job at an all-men’s shelter for men who’d been released from jail, and that he was deeply committed to the course.
“He looked forward to the ceremony,” Hill said in an interview afterward. “He talked about it every day from the time he got home every day, nonstop.”
The coursework included readings of Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” and a New York Times op-ed written by federal judge Stefan R. Underhill, titled “Did the Man I Sentenced to 18 Years Deserve It?” Students also took part in group projects that culminated in policy proposals, including suggestions for work release reform.
For one assignment, Schock asked students to write letters to their future selves, “with the hopes of who they would become, and reminders of where they had come from. I told them to be tender with their future selves.”
One student at the ceremony read aloud excerpts of Murphy’s letter to himself.
“You know that not all days will be sunny but you remind yourself that the sun is shining behind the clouds and your days will still shine brightly,” he wrote on Nov. 23. “Your family is proud of the positive man you’ve become, and you are proud of the man you are today as opposed to the man you were at the beginning of your long journey.”
This article was updated: Professor Geraldine Downey, director of the Columbia Center for Justice, was credited as a co-creator of the program, and additional photographs were added.