NRCJIW Announces Its First Exemplary Leadership Award
We recognize Center for Justice’s Cheryl Wilkins for her groundbreaking work addressing the needs of justice-involved women.
The National Resource Center on Justice-Involved Women (NRCJIW), operated by the Center for Effective Public Policy (CEPP), is committed to increasing success for women involved in the justice system by providing training and technical assistance and creating resources for justice agencies that align with evidence-based strategies for women. The NRCJIW created the Exemplary Leadership Award to recognize the success of people working to address the unique needs of women in the justice system.
The first recipient of the NRCJIW ELA award is Cheryl Wilkins, Co-Founder and Associate Director at Columbia University’s Center for Justice (CFJ). Ms. Wilkins is also an adjunct lecturer at the Columbia University School of Social Work and director of Women Transcending. She is dedicated to ending the nation’s reliance on incarceration, developing new approaches to safety and justice, and participating in the national and global conversation around developing effective criminal justice policy.
Ms. Wilkins spoke with NRCJIW about how she came to be a tireless advocate for justice for women, what we can do to help ensure the success of justice-impacted women, and the work that has made her the most proud.
NRCJIW: What or who influenced you to co-found the Center for Justice at Columbia University?
Cheryl Wilkins: My thirst to organize and advocate started in the 90s inside Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. This was when the Pell Grants were removed, and incarcerated folks couldn’t go to college.
We started a research project inside prison about the impact college had on incarcerated women in maximum-security prisons. We know that college will reduce recidivism and drastically change the lives of not just yourself but your kids. But with the decision to deny eligibility to incarcerated individuals, that option was taken away from all of us.
I became aware that most of the folks coming into prison were poor and coming from impoverished neighborhoods. I thought what I was noticing was happening exclusively in the five boroughs of New York because, at that time, most of the folks coming into the prison were from New York City. But when I interviewed a few women as far as Buffalo and Rochester, and their stories sounded like mine – I realized it is not just a Bronx tale. It is a story familiar to many communities. It’s a system tale where folks are not getting the support they need. So many of the women came from communities not being invested in; many were single mothers who weren’t given the support needed – and landed in prison.
"It’s a system tale where folks are not getting the support they need."
That was an eye-opener for me, and it is where my passion for organizing and advocating began. Since then, we have started to look more closely at the punishment paradigm, which extends from a lack of investments in communities before prison, punishment while you’re in prison and punishment after. How can communities ever get out of that rut? That inspired me to go in a direction to make change and to highlight the injustices that happen predominantly in poor neighborhoods, and more specifically to people of color.
NRCJIW: What project(s) are you working on now that you’re the most excited about?
CW: I have a coding project under the Center for Justice (CFJ) where we provide virtual training to women to advance their computer skills. Under the CFJ’s coding project, we were able to assist various women, including one who was part of a reentry program that allowed her to stay with her child. She couldn’t get a job during the day because she didn’t have childcare. Our program allowed her to learn how to make websites and other coding skills, and she was able to secure a job with Dropbox starting at $75,000 a year. Now she’s making approximately $150,000. She has her own house. It changed her whole life. These are the impacts we’re trying to make. Education may not be for everyone, but some training can drastically change your life.
I have another project called the Collective Leadership Institute. We have about 20 formerly incarcerated women for a year-long national institute to strengthen their leadership and capacity to contribute to the women’s justice movement and end mass incarceration. What we’re doing is capacity building that includes grant proposal writing, budgeting, and philanthropy 101 and 102. We have folks from OSF [Open Society Foundation], Ford [Foundation], and New York Women’s Foundation conducting these workshops. We have legislative advocacy 101, where someone comes in to talk about, “What is a bill? How do you get a bill passed? How do you get somebody to sign off on your bill?” Then we talk about things like the legislative branch and what it means for different states and federal.
One other thing that moves me is called Beyond the Bars Fellows. Beyond the Bars Fellows developed out of the need for students to collaborate with community folks on the issues of mass incarceration. The students work on developing the Beyond the Bars Conference, but they needed more knowledge on the issues. It’s partly students and formerly incarcerated people from the community. They work on the conference and participate in a weekly, eight-month-long seminar where speakers come and talk about the issues. They also have a group project where they support an organization. One of them worked with the Fortune Society, supporting their employment program, and looked at providing people inside prison access to learn more.
We’re doing a lot in the community. We’re working with the RAPP campaign, Releasing Aging People in Prison. I’m working with Justice 4 Women TaskForce, which came out of a group of women wanting to support women inside Bedford Hills, Taconic, and Riker’s Island at the height of COVID because there was nobody worried about the women.
See additional projects Ms. Wilkins and her team are working on here.
NRCJIW: What should we focus on to ensure justice-impacted women’s success?
CW: Make support programming gender-specific. Let’s take reentry, for instance. Reentry should start inside prison – not 90 days, not 60 days before you get ready to leave. How much time is that for you to really have a solid plan to transform your life? That’s not enough time. You hear a lot about the reentry process, but the process is not the same for women. There are so many steps that have to be taken, and there’s no support to help you along the way. For example, the biggest reentry programs in New York City don’t have childcare services.
In my field, I really harp on higher education because I’ve seen so much success with women who were able to achieve a degree and get a job with a living wage. Everything is so expensive, including housing. If you’re able to get something with government support, there’s a lot that goes along with that, so you never really have a chance to come from underneath that system, which they expect you to do.
"My greatest achievement is providing opportunities for women who had no idea they could even go to college."
Narrative change. What we’re doing now is talking about the challenges that women face. It’s very hard to talk about criminal injustice systems because of the number of men versus women. There was a time when our coalition had a rally, and we named the rally “What About Her?” Every time we’re in these spaces, including panel discussions and conferences on criminal justice, we’re in the audience saying, “What about her? Are you going to say anything [about women]?” Even if you’re looking at criminal justice issues through a feminist lens, it does not mean you’re only looking at the issues surrounding women. It means you’re going to support women who will be the backbone of not just your family but also your community, and that’s not a bad thing to do. That’s where we’re at now. We’re trying to change the narrative on how we view incarcerated women.
NRCJIW: And finally, what would you consider your greatest achievement?
CW: Higher education is my purpose. I was in a place where they said, “Lock her up and throw away the keys.” I found my purpose inside prison. I never even thought about my purpose before that. Before, I was walking around aimlessly, doing dumb stuff. Just looking at my circumstances – I grew up in the South Bronx. Drugs and violence ran rampantly, even in my household. To find my purpose inside prison goes to show you that you never know where that moment might hit you.
So, my greatest achievement is providing opportunities for women who had no idea they could even go to college. We created a college prep program and an ESL program. One of the biggest things I remember is a woman who couldn’t speak English leaving out of prison with an associate’s degree. That’s so huge. When I see women I haven’t seen in a long time who were in college prep tell me they got their degree, that’s just so rewarding.
If a woman can get a degree, come home, make a decent living, feed her family, and make a change in her family for the better, that’s major change. If you’re taking care of your kids, family members, or parents, and you have a career and not going to jail, that’s major change.
NRCJIW is collaborating with Ms. Wilkins and the Women Transcending Research Team to develop resource guides and virtual training designed to help women navigate the complex journey from incarceration to the community. Ms. Wilkins has also been selected to complete the certification process to become a Gender-Responsive Policy and Practice Assessment-Community Version (GRPPA-CV) trainer and will be working closely with the NRCJIW and the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) in support of this work.
To learn more about Cheryl Wilkins’ work, please visit the CFJ website.
The NRCJIW is committed to breaking the cycle of re-incarceration and providing agencies and impacted women with assistance and resources to support their successful transition to the community. To learn more about this work, please visit our website.
 In 1992,an amendment to the Higher Education Act denied Pell Grant eligibility to prisoners serving life sentences or who were on death row. Two years later, the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act denied all incarcerated individuals’ eligibility for federal financial aid. Prison Fellowship, https://www.prisonfellowship.org/2019/05/pell-grants-for-prisoners/
 The Beyond the Bars Conference is an annual student-driven interdisciplinary conference on mass incarceration held at Columbia University. Each year the conference brings together students, faculty, activists, advocates, practitioners, those who have experienced and/or been impacted by incarceration, community members, and more to connect, galvanize, and deepen the work of building justice and equity and ending mass incarceration.