Dismantling Mass Incarceration from the Ivy League
James Harvey Elliott did not want to return to college. After leaving his private, Christian school due to racial discrimination from his peers, Elliott was placed in a public high school, still battling the drug addiction he’d gained in an attempt to escape from the discrimination he faced. His high school graduation came only as a result of passing summer school after failing his senior year. Drugs played an increasingly prominent role in Elliott’s life after high school, when he began selling drugs and skipping classes leading to two failed attempts at community college. In February of 2011, Elliott was arrested and, one year later, was sentenced to seven years in prison.
While incarcerated, Elliott’s mom urged him to enroll in a distance-learning program that would allow him to study from prison. Though reluctant at first, he enrolled at Ohio University and ultimately discovered his passion: prison reform.
“As a Black man who has been to prison, I see now what my father was fighting so hard to show me. That my education means the possibility of a brighter future for myself and my family.”
He was released for good behavior after serving five and a half years, and immediately enrolled at Delaware Technical Community College (DTCC) where he harnessed his abilities in a way he hadn’t been able to in his past. This opportunity paired with the motivation he found during his incarceration drove Elliott to push for increased access to higher education in the American prison system. “I have continued my work to help DTCC in providing opportunities of higher-learning in Delaware’s prisons,” said Elliott, adding that he has “also spent time working with the local ACLU to testify for state legislation regarding pardons and expungements.”
As a Black man who has been to prison, I see now what my father was fighting so hard to show me. That my education means the possibility of a brighter future for myself and my family.
Elliott graduated from DTCC with a dual associate's degree in Human Services and Drug and Alcohol Counseling. In his time at community college, he was not only a member of the international community college honor society, Phi Theta Kappa, but he was elected to the position of International President. This role allowed Elliott to pursue his mission to bring education to prisons on an entirely new level. “I had the pleasure of chartering Phi Theta Kappa’s first chapter inside a prison at Ingram Technical College in Deatsville, Alabama. Along with speaking in prisons over the past year, I have had countless opportunities to speak and bring awareness to the effects of mass incarceration at community colleges across the country,” Elliott said.
Among his list of accomplishments since his release from prison, Elliott became a father to his daughter Vaeda in January 2018. When he isn’t advocating for prison reform, he is often spending time playing doctor or taking walks with Vaeda. “She is one of the biggest inspirations and motivations in my life,” he said.
It was important to challenge myself to apply to an Ivy League institution, to not only inspire others but prove to myself that I had the ability to make it...I chose GS because of its community.
Despite all of his success in recent years, Elliott still did not feel like “Ivy League material” due to the stigma that often surrounds community colleges. “It was important to challenge myself to apply to an Ivy League institution, to not only inspire others but prove to myself that I had the ability to make it,” he said. “I chose GS because of its community.”
Elliott’s admission to GS was made even more surreal by his receipt of the PALS scholarship, a highly selective scholarship given to students who may otherwise not be able to attend an Ivy League school. “Receiving the PALS scholarship from Columbia to me means a multitude of things—inclusion, validation, redemption, and most importantly it means I can still dream.”
“My real-world participation in the criminal justice system as an inmate has provided me with a unique perspective that is scarce amongst classrooms of higher learning. I look forward to bringing about change with the valuable knowledge I have gained throughout my life and my academic journey thus far,” Elliott said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that with GS’s community and the support that offered to me will allow me to achieve whatever career path I decided to take.”