Columbia's Cons: Ivy League social work program run by team of former prisoners

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EXCLUSIVE: In the hallowed halls of Columbia University, a nest of ex-cons — who have served time for murder, attempted murder, robbery and assault — hold court on their unique brand of social justice for admiring students enrolled in the school's social work program, a investigation has found.

The ex-cons work for or with the Criminal Justice Initiative (CJI), co-founded in 2009 by former Weather Underground operative and Columbia adjunct professor Kathy Boudin, who pleaded guilty to felony murder for her role in an infamous 1981 armed robbery that left two police officers and a security guard dead. And while that case was well-publicized, the group is hardly upfront about the “practical experience” of Boudin and others associated with the CJI.

A description on the program's website says it is "situated inside” Columbia, and a part of the school’s “Social Intervention Group,” a research center within the Columbia University School of Social Work. It lists among its goals helping to forge a solution for “a central social crisis of our time, mass incarceration.” The program holds events and conducts research as part of "an interdisciplinary project built around a model of community collaboration" that "seeks to increase the number of skilled practitioners, policy-makers and researchers who can advance the fields of re-entry and incarceration across all disciplines.”


But students and parents who shell out more than $43,000 in annual tuition and fees might be hard-pressed to uncover the fact that former inmates are running the CJI. Outside of a vague reference to Boudin and Cheryl Wilkins being "part of a community of people who have returned from prison," there is no information about their criminal pasts. Boudin's school directory bio, for example, makes no mention of her time in prison. Several other CJI faculty, program members and associates have similarly disturbing backgrounds.

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Wilkins, co-director of the CJI, is listed in the Columbia School of Social Work adjunct faculty directory as a “research scientist” and “Associate Director for the Criminal Justice Initiative. She was convicted for her role in a 1996 gunpoint hijacking of a Federal Express truck in Harlem, in which she served as the getaway driver. Wilkins served a 12-year sentence for robbery and assault at Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan.

But Wilkins' school biography page makes no mention of her time in jail. Wilkins is also listed as staff associate at Columbia Law School's Center for Institutional and Social Change, though that bio also neglects any mention of her prison time. According to the bio, Wilkins works with teens who have incarcerated parents and is an adjunct lecturer at Columbia, where she often discusses topics concerning the “need of families and communities affected by mass incarceration.”

Denise Blackwell, a “research assistant” under the Social Intervention Group, the parent/umbrella group of the Criminal Justice Initiative, was paroled in 2003 after serving 10 years in prison on an attempted second-degree murder conviction for her role in a Brooklyn holdup in which three drug dealers were killed. According to reports of her 1991 arrest, Blackwell knew the three men and "orchestrated" the robbery.

"By prearrangement, she let the boys in to stick up the place," a New York Police Department lieutenant was quoted as saying at the time. Blackwell’s son, Mack Moton, who was 15 at the time, was tried as an adult and convicted of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 32 years to life, and is being held in Sing Sing Correctional Facility, in Ossining, N.Y.

Mika’il DeVeaux was one of the keynote speakers for the CJI’s “Removing the Bars” Conference in 2012. But his bio in the conference program failed to mention the 24-year stint he served in Westchester County for second-degree murder and his subsequent parole in 2003, or that he’s co-director of a non-profit with Boudin called Citizens Against Recidivism. Instead, the bio simply says DeVeaux “has more than three decades of experience working with men incarcerated in New York State maximum security prisons and many who have been released following periods of confinement.”

Repeated requests for comment from Boudin placed through Columbia were not returned, but the school responded with a statement.

“There are approximately 1.6 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails and 7 million American children with a parent who is either incarcerated, on parole, or on probation,” read the statement. “The Criminal Justice Initiative focuses on how the social work profession can best address the educational and human needs of individuals, children, families and communities affected by incarceration.”

Requests for comment were also sent to officials at CJI, including Wilkins and Blackwell.

Critics can't understand why convicted criminals with violent pasts should hold such prestigious positions at the vaunted school.

“I am perplexed by Columbia administrators’ plot to commission notorious villains as mentors to the rising generation of Americans,” Josiah Ryan, editor-in-chief for education advocacy blog Campus Reform, told “Columbia administrators should send a letter to parents informing them that many of the professors who will teach their children are unable to pass a basic criminal background check.”

Boudin was a member of radical leftist group the Weather Underground, which was responsible for numerous bombings in the 1960s and 1970s, including ones at the Pentagon, Capitol Building and New York's police headquarters. The group was co-founded by William Ayers and his wife Bernadine Dohrn, who themselves went on to long careers in academia in Chicago. The couple was appointed the legal guardians of Boudin's son while she was in prison and has been linked to the early days of President Obama's political career.

Ayers and his wife were even in attendance for CJI's "Removing the Bars" conference in 2012.

"Hungout with Angela Davis, Bill and Bernadine Ayers, Kathy Boudin & others! Wow #removingbars #removingthebars We had a great kickoff event," tweeted Ronin Davis, then head of the Criminal Justice Caucus, a CJI student-leadership group.

The group holds frequent on-campus events, where a common theme is a curious vision of prison reform that seems not to include punishment. Some of the panel discussions at these events include: “How do we DE-carcerate?” and “Society’s Perceptions of the Formerly Incarcerated.”

Last year, CJI held a workshop titled, “No One Wants to Work With Me: Working with Difficult Populations,” where one of the key points discussed was the “misconceptions and judgments of people labeled registered sex offenders.”

The program’s ties to the Weather Underground are deep. In addition to Boudin's involvement and the visit from Ayers and Dohrn, other former high-level members of the Weather Underground were invited to speak at CJI events. They included Russell Neufeld, who went on to become an anti-death penalty attorney, and Laura Whitehorn, who spoke at an October 2011 called the “Troy Davis Teach-in.”

In 1981, a 38-year-old Boudin, along with several other members of the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army, attempted to rob a Brink’s armored truck in Nanuet, N.Y. A security guard was gunned down during the initial robbery and two police officers were killed in a subsequent shootout. Although Boudin did not fire any weapons, her role as getaway driver earned her a sentence of 20 years to life. She was paroled in August 2003.

Boudin's work in prison education dates back to her stint at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York. She took part in a 2001 research study on the subject that also included as participants former Black Panther and one-time FBI most-wanted fugitive Angela Davis and Donna Hylton, who served 25 years in prison for her part in the 1985 torture and murder of a Long Island real-estate broker whose decomposing body was found stuffed in a foot locker. That study, and her previous experience with the Weather Underground, appears to have laid the groundwork for her reinvention as an academic specializing in working for -- and with -- violent criminals.

John Hanchar, brother-in-law of Nyack Police Officer Edward O’ Grady, who was killed in the Brink's robbery, told it is distressing to see Boudin and other violent criminals treated like academic superstars.

“That’s the worst thing I could have heard,” Hanchar said. “My sister had three children and she raised them into good people and what [Boudin] did was take their father from them.

“It’s terrible that she has murderers working with her at a school," he continued. "I could see if they had someone speak who committed robbery and served their time, but murderers? It’s not right.”