Championing Student Identity To Transform Formerly Incarcerated Individuals
By Allison Scola
G E R A L D I N E D O W N E Y
- Professor of Psychology
- Director of the Social Relations Lab
- Director of the Center for Justice
Faculty member since: 1991
Education: BS, University College, Dublin; PhD, Cornell University
Recent Publications: “A Dyadic Perspective on Speech Accommodation and Social Connection: Both Partners’ Rejection Sensitivity Matters” in Journal of Personality with co-authors L. Aguilar, R. Krauss, J. Pardo, S. Lane, and N. Bolger
Fun Fact: Managed a youth soccer team—once.
Geraldine Downey, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Justice at Columbia University, and her colleagues have made it their mission to address U.S. mass incarceration and rehabilitation practices. In a speech on criminal justice at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia in April 2015, Hillary Rodham Clinton discussed the scale of U.S. incarceration: “It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30,40 years ago, despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.”
Furthermore, an estimated 39 percent of state and federal prisoners are incarcerated with little public safety rationale, according to “How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?,” a report recently published by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The report suggests that these individuals “could be more appropriately sentenced to an alternative to prison or a shorter prison stay, with limited impact on public safety.”
As a featured speaker in December 2015’s Talks@Columbia, Downey offered a possible solution. “It’s been recognized that mass incarceration is simply not working, and it’s been well established that taking on the student identity is a pathway to success,” she said. “Being a college student in prison is the best-known protection against recidivism. It cuts the rate almost in half.”
Originally from Kilkenny, Ireland, Downey earned a PhD in psychology from Cornell University in 1986. When she came to the United States, she had intended to return home upon completing her degree, but poor job prospects led her to a postdoctoral program at the University of Michigan. Still, the class system and the stigmatization of disadvantaged communities back in Ireland inspired her research on rejection sensitivity, examining the factors that shape people’s expectations regarding whether others will accept or reject them.
While at Michigan, she volunteered at a woman’s prison, and what she learned from the women incarcerated there—the notion that a college education sets people free—put her on the path that she has been on for over 25 years.
“Criminal identity is so stigmatizing that it gives people with a criminal conviction the idea that they can’t contribute to society,” Downey said in an interview. “Working in prisons, you see how much people who are in prison value the identity of ‘student.’ They come to class with a motivation. They bring their all. The student identity gives them a positive sense of themselves and a great sense of respect from their families.”
Experiencing such results firsthand motivated the professor to teach classes such as Social Factors and Psychopathology and Children at Risk. Additionally, her research on the personality disposition of rejection sensitivity and her experience teaching in prisons has been instrumental in establishing the Center for Justice’s programs such as the Columbia Justice-in-Education Initiative, the Rikers Education Program, the Directly Impacted Group, and the Beyond the Bars Fellowship.
Current School of General Studies student Leyla Martinez, who was formerly incarcerated and is a graduate of the Justice-in-Education Initiative, explained the impact of Downey’s mentoring and the opportunities presented to her by Columbia and the Center for Justice. “I have had many challenging moments [since enrolling at GS].
I even considered quitting, but Professor Downey has not let me give up on myself or this amazing opportunity I have been given,” she said. “I successfully completed my first year as a Columbia student with a 3.6 GPA, which has been in great part due to the support I have found in her.”
Martinez’s transformation is one example of what educational opportunity offers these individuals and the powerful work that the Center for Justice performs. “The [formerly incarcerated] students go beyond themselves,” Downey said. “They bring a richness that enhances the classroom discussions. They go on to careers, and they return as volunteers. Our programs help change people’s lives.”