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Justice Initiative | St. Francis College

Justice Initiative

Create a New Path. Change Your Life.

For the formerly incarcerated, education helps reduce the risk of recidivism and opens a career path that can help break the cycle of crime and poverty. Aligned with the mission of St. Francis College, our Franciscan tradition and commitment to helping underserved and first-generation students earn a degree, the Justice Initiative provides extensive academic, scholarship and mentoring support to formerly incarcerated men and women within a rigorous college program.

About the Center

Justice Initiative


All students who have been accepted to the program will receive a scholarship from the college. This scholarship amount will vary based on each student’s financial aid eligibility from the FAFSA and NYSTAP applications.

Financial Responsibility

All students who have not been officially accepted into the program by the deadline dates above and are registered for any given semester will be financially responsible to pay any charges on their account. It is important for all students to be accepted and financially cleared by the college.


Working with partners such as Hudson Link, Columbia University, NYU Law School Prisoners' Rights and Education Project and the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, St. Francis College identifies individuals reentering society and looking to further their education.

Applying to the Program

All students applying to the program must complete the following before they will be considered for the program:

Application Deadlines

Deadlines to be admitted into the program:

Fall semesters: August 15
Spring Semesters: January 2


Justice Initiative
180 Remsen Street | Brooklyn, NY 11201

Professor Emily Horowitz | 718-489-5446
Professor Eric Platt | 718-489-3437

Our Graduates

(Pictured from left to right: Johnny Perez, Felix Colon and Arielle Pierre at their graduation from SFC in 2018)

Johnny Perez ‘18 is the Director of U.S. Prisons Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a membership organization committed to ending U.S. sponsored torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, including solitary confinement. Of his 13 years in prison, three were spent in solitary confinement. A Criminal Justice major, Johnny served as a Safe Reentry Advocate for the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project. He has worked as a member of pro-social groups the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) and the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Johnny has testified at the United Nations and been interviewed by numerous news organizations around the world. Recently featured in an ad campaign that ran in the New York subway system, Johnny commented, “I remember when I was younger, I was homeless after running away from home and slept on the A train for two weeks. Today I’m still on the train, but in a different way and for a reason I never could have imagined.” (Learn more about Johnny at

Felix Colon ‘18 is a Sociology major who loved being a student at SFC. In addition to attending a great number of lectures and events at St. Francis, he also learned to swim. A highlight of his SFC career was meeting civil rights legend Bernard Lafayette. Felix participated in a non-violence program developed by Lafayette while he was incarcerated, and loved having the opportunity to hear him speak as a full-time college student successfully overcoming the stigma of almost 2 decades in prison and the challenges of re-entry. Felix plans to continue his education either in Law School or pursuing a graduate degree.

Arielle Pierre ‘18 is a Sociology major with a concentration in Social Work. Arielle struggled growing up after her mother was sent to prison. Like many children with a parent in prison, she eventually wound up behind bars herself. After prison, Arielle decided to change her life and entered St. Francis. She hopes to pursue a degree in social work. Arielle’s mother also earned multiple degrees after completing prison and is currently finishing her dissertation on the effects of intergenerational incarceration.

About Justice Initiative

Program Background

Our program is designed to assist those with criminal justice involvement with completing a college degree while re-entering the community. We apply the existing highly successful prison-based higher education model to a community-based higher education setting. The re-entry process is traumatic, and helping students finish a college degree in a supportive environment is one way to both ease the transition back to the community while providing social networks and career opportunities to an at-risk population. Ultimately, it provides another opportunity to reduce recidivism and increase community safety.

St. Francis College is an ideal institution for a program for the formerly incarcerated because it directly relates to the College’s commitment to disadvantaged and first-generation college students and its historic outreach to those most in need. Located in downtown Brooklyn near many community-based justice programs and social service organizations, St. Francis offers an ideal location as the majority of those leaving jail and prison in NY facilities relocate to the five boroughs of New York City.

The St. Francis program offers constructive support for this population including:

  • For-credit remediation classes (if required)
  • Transfer of applicable college credits attained in prison programs (including non-traditional religious and professional programs)
  • Enhanced academic support including mentoring and dedicated faculty advisers
  • Stipends for textbooks
  • Enhanced social support with social service and criminal justice organizations
  • Coordination with parole and/or probation supervision
  • Summer jobs and internships
  • Social events for students to build social and professional networks


Working with partners such as Hudson Link, Columbia University, NYU Law School Prisoners’ Rights and Education Project, and the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, St. Francis College identifies individuals reentering society and looking to further their education. Many of the students have taken credit-bearing courses or other classes while incarcerated and are looking to complete their degree now that they are home. St. Francis works with participants to accept applicable transfer credits attained while in prison or prior to incarceration. Some students enter St. Francis having up to two years of college credits, while others enter as first-year students with a GED or high school diploma.

Program Specifics

Justice Initiative students enroll as full-time, bachelor's degree students during the re-entry process. St. Francis College’s Justice Initiative is unique in that formerly incarcerated students are engaged in a traditional college setting and receive ancillary support and mentorship. It is often the case that classmates don’t know about their criminal justice involvement. They are not stigmatized or publicly identified unless they choose to self-disclose, and their experience brings a new lens to class discussions and collaborative learning. Faculty members report that Post-Prison Program students are the most driven and hardest working in the College, demonstrating their desire to succeed as productive members of society and role models in their community.

Since its inception in 2014, in collaboration with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, the Justice Initiative has served 14 participants, with the first cohort of three students graduating in May 2018 and 11 currently enrolled.

Justice Initiative students receive additional support. In partnership with the NYU Law School Prisoners’ Rights and Education Project, students are offered tutoring and mentorship. Students whose tuition is not covered through financial aid receive an institutional scholarship as well as funds to purchase books. The College also arranges special events for students, such as group outings to theaters, bowling get-togethers and sporting events.

Justice Initiative students matriculate into the college’s general education population and they are expected to complete the same rigorous coursework as their peers. All courses at St. Francis are part of a track toward a bachelor’s degree and any credits transferred from courses taken while incarcerated are approved by the College’s Dean of Curriculum and Student Support. Most Justice Initiative students are criminal justice or sociology majors. Many are looking to earn degrees and work and advance in the criminal justice or social work fields, helping others returning from incarceration and fighting for reforms; these are also fields where a criminal history is not a barrier to employment.

St. Francis College is a small, private institution whose Franciscan traditions are rooted in service and hospitality. Here, students with barriers receive the attention and support needed to succeed, as opposed to in a larger public college where they may feel lost or overwhelmed. Additionally, St. Francis College faculty members who volunteer their time to mentor students and administer the program are fully invested in seeing to students’ success.

Demographics and Demand

There is a profound need for innovative re-entry services that promote public safety and lead to economic security in the urban neighborhoods traditionally served by St. Francis College. Combined, there are nearly 60 state and federal corrections facilities throughout New York. The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) has over 50,000 individuals under custody, and over half were committed from NYC and its surrounding counties (NYS DOCCS Under Custody Report 2017). In 2012, nearly half of those released from state facilities returned to NYC, and 80% of those to Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens (NYS DOCCS Three-Year Justice Initiative Follow-Up). Additionally, the New York City Department of Corrections, which provides custody for individuals sentenced to less than one year of jail time, manages 11 facilities handling nearly 50,000 admissions each year. In the United States, at least 95% of people incarcerated in state prisons will be released to their communities at some point (National Reentry Resource Center).

Each year in New York State, about 23,000 individuals are released from incarceration. On average, about 4,000 return home to Brooklyn and Queens, demonstrating the room to scale this program at just one institution. While a traditional bachelor's education will not be the right fit for all formerly incarcerated individuals, there are many who never dreamed that having access to college was ever an option. These individuals are looking for a second chance and the means to advance themselves and their families. Education attainment helps this vulnerable population overcome barriers and leads to lower rates of recidivism.

The Justice Initiative serves formerly incarcerated individuals, a population that is largely minority. To date, 46% of Justice Initiative Students have been Black/African American and 46% Hispanic. Additionally, 23% were female. In New York, 48% of inmates in state facilities are Black/African American and 24% are Hispanic. In New York City Department of Corrections facilities, 54% of the population is Black/African American and 37% is Hispanic. Additionally, students at St. Francis College are representative of the Brooklyn Community. Nineteen percent of students are Black/African American and 24% are Hispanic.

Future Goals

In the future, St. Francis College hopes to serve more students and begin teaching courses in local facilities. Specifically, the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) is interested in offering college courses taught by St. Francis faculty to inmates. This would give St. Francis College the opportunity to create learning opportunities in non-traditional environments for a disadvantaged population. In 2013, a RAND Corporation study found that inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 43% lower expectation of returning to prison. While it would be the hope that students in Brooklyn MDC who take St. Francis courses enroll in the College upon release, these credits will be recognized at other institutions. We have worked closely with the Education Director at MDC for the past two years to develop ways to offer for-credit educational opportunities to those finishing their federal sentences, but we have not had the resources to pay faculty to implement this program.

Specific Goals
  • Gradually increase the number of program participants to 14-16 with an ultimate goal of 25 by the fall of 2023;
  • Continue to host a minimum of 2 events per semester for the College and greater New York area institutions of Higher Education and Criminal Justice Reform as well as a yearly day-long conference (initiated in fall 2018) in collaboration with community-based organizations specializing in prison re-entry services aimed at raising awareness about the significance of supporting students with criminal justice histories and focused on how earning a college degree during the traumatic re-entry process supports community reintegration and safety;
  • Demonstrate the replicability of our program and continue to publicize the program internally and in the NYC community, building relationships with other similar programs in the NY area.

Upcoming and Past Events

The Justice Initiative at SFC launched in 2014. Students, faculty and staff have found the initiative to be rewarding for the entire SFC community. Inspired by Hudson Link and other nonprofits that privately fund college programs in prisons, our program closely mentors this population as they finish their degrees during the re-entry process. In May 2018, our first cohort of 3 students graduated and we now have 11 students enrolled. This panel features current students discussing the importance of college after incarceration, as well as re-entry challenges, the realities of mass incarceration policies, and experiences of solitary confinement. The students will shed light on other less tangible benefits of the SFC Program, including the structure provided by the program, safety, support, a heightened sense of belonging, improved-self esteem, and skills necessary for academic and professional success.
Former Prisoners Share Spoken Word Performances - November 1, 2017

A prison cell can dull even the most spirited minds, but for some, creativity is a way to get beyond the prison walls.

On November 1, 2017, St. Francis College student and member of the College's Justice Initiative, Johnny Perez '18 showed how words led to positive action by hosting Diary of My State Pen, a night of poetry and performances by formerly incarcerated writers.

"Living in prison is like living in darkness, but creative expression is the illuminating light which often eliminated that darkness, not only for me, but for all the writers who will share their journey with us," said Perez.

Other performers included St. Francis College student Lazaro Lugo '21, Paragraph Lyn Robinson, Sean Dalpiaz, and Natficial Fellowmen.

The event was co-sponsored by NYU Law School Prisoner's Rights and Education Project, the St. Francis College Justice Initiative and the Institute for Peace & Justice.

Johnny Perez is a Criminal Justice major at St. Francis. He is a tireless advocate for those facing the challenges of re-entry after prison. He now works for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture as their Director of U.S. Prisons Program, where he advocates against the use of solitary confinement. He previously worked full-time at the Urban Justice Center as a re-entry advocate since 2014 while attending St. Francis College full-time. Last year, he was appointed to the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He has worked to change the status quo of unjust policies and practices as a member of the the Jails Action Coalition and the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), as well as on the NY Bar Association's Correction and Reentry Committee.

Justice Initiative Students Talk About Importance of Education and Reform - May 1st, 2017

Previously incarcerated students from St. Francis College's Justice Initiative followed a May 1, 2017 screening of Rikers: An American Jail with a frank discussion on their experiences behind bars, at Rikers and other institutions, and their time now on the cusp of earning an undergraduate degree. Nearly 100 guests, including a large group of St. Francis faculty and students, attended the screening and stayed on for the panel discussion.

Johnny Perez '18, who spent 13 years behind bars and expects to graduate with a degree in Criminal Justice in January, moderated the panel. Perez has become a leading advocate on ending the use of solitary confinement (read a recently published editorial in USA Today). He now works at the Urban Justice Center as a Safe Reentry Advocate. Earlier this year he was appointed to the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Perez has testified at numerous hearings, including before City Council and at the United Nations.

Three other students took part in the discussion.

Arielle Pierre '18, a Sociology and Criminal Justice major, said that enrolling at St. Francis after prison probably stopped her from getting into trouble again and that it was inspiring to be doing course work. She takes it much more seriously than before she was arrested.

Felix Colon '18 is studying criminal justice. He spent three years in Rikers before being moved to upstate prisons. He recently received some good news – because of his exemplary behavior, he was released from lifetime parole.

Gabriel Grande '20 a Business Management major, talked about being a 16-year-old thrust into a world of adults and told to be a man to survive. Now that he is out, he realizes prison has changed him and he needs to overcome those challenges.

Joining the students on the panel were members of the NYU Law School Prisoners' Rights and Education Project (PREP) which co-sponsored the event with St. Francis College.

Victoria Wenger, a student at NYU Law said that law school classes fail to offer context on the effects of incarceration on families and society as a whole and that only by meeting the people affected can you understand the impact of criminal laws and the prison system.

Anokhi Shah — defense attorney at the Center for Appellate Litigation, an NYU Law graduate and founder of PREP's partnership project — added that help with re-entry into mainstream society is a forgotten part of the prison process, but it can be the most important piece because of the many constraints and stigmas that are attached to people who served time.

Both Shah and Wenger said that their involvement with the students in the St. Francis program taught them as much as many of their classes at NYU Law about the real effects of the criminal justice system.

The post-prison opportunity program is co-directed by members of the Sociology & Criminal Justice and History departments at St. Francis. Founder and co-director Dr. Emily Horowitz is thrilled that a new group of students with criminal histories will be starting at St. Francis this fall.

"These students need our help, and our faculty and community welcome them and provide support so they successfully re-enter society after prison," said Professor Horowitz. "At the same time, our faculty, students and community learn so much from these students, and they help us much more than we help them. They allow us to see the human casualties of our system of mass incarceration."

Rikers premiered on Thirteen earlier this month.

The Confined Arts: Solitary Confinement Edition - March 12th, 2016

On March 12, St. Francis College welcomed currently (via phone) and formerly incarcerated prisoners for The Confined Arts: Solitary Confinement Edition, a showcase on how art and poetry can transcend prison walls while drawing the inhumanity of solitary confinement into sharp focus.

Artwork inspired by solitary confinement was on display while survivors offered spoken word performances and poetry about their time. One performer was Spoon Jackson who spoke from a California correctional facility where he is serving a life sentence.

Other speakers included representatives from Opportunities and Change and the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement.

A panel discussion on solitary confinement, focusing on conditions in solitary confinement in New York State, featured:
• Ricky James, host of "Unlocked" on 90.3 FM
• Leigh-Anne Francis, professor of African, African-American and women and gender studies (College of New Jersey)
• Nate Williams, spoken word artist and musician
• Jennifer J. Parish, Director of Criminal Justice Advocacy, Mental Health Project Urban Justice Center

This event was co-organized by St. Francis College student Johnny Perez '17 of the Urban Justice Center and a student in the program, Post-Prison @ St. Francis College, and Issac Scott, of the Center for Justice at Columbia University and the Program Director of Confined Arts, Opportunities and Change.

The Confined Arts: Solitary Confinement Edition is co-sponsored by the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, Center for Crime and Popular Culture at St. Francis, Post-Prison College @ St. Francis College, New York University Prisoners' Rights and Education Project, and the Women's Poetry Initiative at St. Francis.

ST. Francis/NYU Law School Holiday Party - 2015

In The News

Justice Initiative Conferences

March 31 to April 1, 2022

Criminal Justice Re-Entry and Reform Conference

The second annual Criminal Justice Re-Entry and Reform Conference brings together academics, activists, public officials and formerly incarcerated individuals to address the realities of punishment while incarcerated and the challenges and opportunities for life after prison.

In November of 2018, St. Francis College hosted its inaugural Prison Reform Conference.

On November 14 and 15, St. Francis College Justice Initiative welcomed more than 250 guests to the first annual Prison Re-entry, Reform and Possibilities Conference. Politicians, artists, activists and formerly incarcerated individuals examined topics ranging from the realities of punishment while incarcerated to the challenges of re-entry after prison.

Since 2014, the Post-Prison Program at St. Francis has enrolled 11 students and 3 graduates, giving formerly incarcerated men and women a chance to pursue higher education. Three of the students from the inaugural cohort graduated with their Bachelor’s degrees in 2018.

This two-day conference aimed to highlight the achievements of the Justice Initiative while examining the moral and religious implications of re-entry programs and raising awareness about innovative programs for those currently in prison.

Keynote speakers included Chris Owens, Director of the Re-entry Bureau at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office; Vaughn Mayers, from the Office of Senator Kevin S. Parker; Assemblywoman Latrice Parker; and NYS Assemblyman David I. Weprin, Chair of the Corrections Committee.

The conference revolved around a series of panels. The first, moderated by Dr. John Edwards (Associate Professor of Religious Studies, St. Francis College), explored the concept of redemption in religious thought. Panelists included Dr. Jenny Labenz, a Jewish Studies scholar; Debbie Almontaser, a Muslim educator and Founder of Bridging Cultures; Rev. Barbara E. Davis Executive Minister at First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan; and Joshua Stancil, a Catholic activist who was formerly incarcerated. Panelists discussed how their own religious traditions offered room for understanding and critiqued the judicial system for failing in this area.

The second discussion focused on the St. Francis Post Prison Program. The panel featured current students enrolled in the program — Steuben Vega, Kevin Smith, Luis Pelaez — and Felix Colon, who graduated from St. Francis in May. The students all spoke of the challenges of prison and how attending St. Francis offered them not only an education and a degree but support, mentorship and social networks during the challenging re-entry process. The panel was moderated by Keston Jones, a formerly incarcerated person currently pursuing a doctorate at Yeshiva University and founder of the Foundation for the Advancement and Rehabilitation of the Marginalized.

The final panel of the day, moderated by conference co-organizer Dr. Michelle Gantt (Education Supervisor of the Metropolitan Detention Center), discussed the importance of education programs within prisons. With input from Dr. Christa Mercer of Columbia University, K. Bain of Cure Violence and Nick Franklin of the Brooklyn Public Library, panelists discussed how education programs can be transformative for incarcerated men and women.

In addition to panel discussions, there was a screening of the documentary film Cooler Bandits, and a performance by Theatre for Social Change. One of the most powerful aspects of the conference was a full-size replica solitary confinement cell and virtual reality experience coordinated by Johnny Perez (SFC ’18) of the National Religion Campaign Against Torture. Doug Van Zandt of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement constructed the cell onsite in Callahan Center and offered tours of the cell, along with Felix Colon (SFC ’18).

This Conference was hosted in partnership with the President’s Office of SFC and in collaboration with Dr. Michelle Gantt of the Metropolitan Detention Center and Johnny Perez ( SFC ’18), National Director of Prison Programs at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

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