Finding Freedom After Incarceration Through Education and Advocacy

Jarrell Daniels, a New York native and formerly incarcerated teenager, enrolled at the Columbia University School of General Studies during the fall of 2019, not too long after completing a six-year sentence on Rikers Island. Since his release, Daniels has become a prominent advocate for criminal justice reform through public speaking, research, and mentorship efforts. 

October 04, 2019

“It would be a lie if I said life before my incarceration was filled with hope and prosperity. For most of those first 18 years, I lived in a state of fear and uncertainty, not knowing whether this would be the month my family faced another eviction, or if I would have to continue to watch my mother being domestically abused,” Daniels said, reflecting on his experiences. 

Jarrell Daniels grew up in New York with his mother, sister, and step-father. At home, his family faced financial instability and abuse, in his neighborhood, Daniels never felt quite safe, and from a young age, he felt responsible for protecting his loved ones—a burden that eventually led to his incarceration. 

One afternoon, on his way home, a fearful 17-year-old Daniels nearly ended someone’s life trying to defend his sister who had been attacked. Prosecutors sentenced him to six years in prison on Rikers Island as a result. 

I was born black, poor, and at a disadvantage, and now I was convicted of a felony offense. Education, specifically obtaining a college degree, is the only way I see to not only redefine my existence, but also set myself up to live a healthy adult life.

Jarrell Daniels, GS Student

Toward the end of his sentence, a counselor urged Daniels to sign up for his first ever college course. Inside Criminal Justice, a unique collaboration between Columbia University’s Justice-In-Education Initiative and the Queensboro Correctional Facility, was co-taught by Geraldine Downey, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Columbia and Manhattan Assistant District Attorney and, then, director of the District Attorney of New York Academy, Lucy Lang.

“Up until that point, college was something I only reflected on as I watched television shows or movies that depicted the perfect start to obtaining the ‘American Dream’,” Daniels recalled. 

The course had 16 students, bringing together eight incarcerated men and eight assistant district attorneys to learn alongside, and from, each other in a seminar-style environment. It proved to be eye-opening for Daniels.

As he found common ground with men whom he had previously only viewed as adversaries, he began to heal from the emotional trauma he had been carrying since childhood and with the belief that education could set him free, see his own potential. 

“I was born black, poor, and at a disadvantage, and now I was convicted of a felony offense. Education, specifically obtaining a college degree, is the only way I see to not only redefine my existence, but also set myself up to live a healthy adult life,” Daniels said. 

The work Daniels did as part of a team in the course led to the establishment of a Department of Motor Vehicles office inside the Manhattan parole office—enabling released prisoners to immediately obtain a state ID to replace the temporary ID given to them while in custody, which can often be a barrier to reintegrating into society. 

After his release, Daniels acknowledged that his perspective had shifted despite his incarceration, rather than because of it and was determined to create change in an unfair legal system that had allowed him to reach incarceration. He continued to pursue his education while championing for criminal justice reform and developing resources for vulnerable youth. 

After spending six of the last seven years incarcerated—I was released at the age of 23—life for me has only just begun.

Jarrell Daniels

Daniels enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, was named a Justice-in-Education Scholar, and was even invited to give a highly-viewed Ted Talk discussing his own experience as an incarcerated youth and the power of education and communication in improving the legal system. He also joined several groups that advocate for reform and involve youth mentorship, including Youth Service Agencies throughout New York City, the Columbia Center for Justice, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

In September, Open Society Foundations announced their Soros Justice Fellows and Daniels was among those named. The fellowship will support him as he works to launch the Justice Ambassadors, a leadership development opportunity for system-impacted youth in New York City. Daniels is also currently working with Associate Professor Desmond Patton from the Columbia University School of Social Work, on a virtual reality project titled “Digital Arrest”, to demonstrate how social media is used as a means to build criminal profiles against inner-city youth through misinterpretation, stereotyping, and racial profiling.  

Daniels plans to study sociology at GS, with a focus in political science. In the long term, he aspires to run for public office in New York where he will use his position to create opportunities for and redistribute resources to disenfranchised communities, much like his own.

“After spending six of the last seven years incarcerated—I was released at the age of 23—life for me has only just begun,” Daniels said.