Beyond the Bars Fellows 2016-2017

Meet our 2016-17 Beyond the Bars Fellows

Our current Fellows come from many schools across Columbia (Social Work, Teachers College, Columbia College, the School of the Arts, School of Public Health and the Sociology Department), other colleges (Rutgers, New York University, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College) and a variety of different community and government organizations (the Osborne Association, Vera Institute of Justice, the Red Umbrella Project, the Fortune Society, VIBE magazine and the Center for Court Innovations).  We are honored to be working with such a powerful group of people and look forward to seeing the work of the Fellowship continue to grow.


Allison Colucci is a second-year graduate student at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, exploring social and behavioral sciences with a focus on health promotion, program planning, and evaluation. Prior to attending Mailman, she completed her Bachelor of Science at Loyola University Maryland, where she studied biology, sociology, and writing. During undergrad Allison volunteered in a maximum security prison teaching philosophy, and spent time in Copenhagen studying the Danish criminal justice system. Her academic interests primarily include social determinants of health, the school to prison pipeline, health care policy, and comparative health systems. She is an advocate of increasing access to health care and education, and criminal justice policy reform to end mass incarceration. Allison is currently serving as President of the Association for Justice and Health, the Mailman student organization which aims to promote critical analysis of social justice issues through a public health lens. She is also collaborating with the Columbia Law School on the Prison Health Initiative, creating accessible materials to support individuals in prison manage their health and designing a qualitative study to inform the project’s future direction.


Shagasyia Diamond is a Black Trans Woman with experience in the sex trades. She was incarcerated for 10 years in New York state and experienced rampant harassment and discrimination, as well as solitary confinement.  Since her release from prison she has been involved in a wide range of political work, both in New York City and nationally.  She is currently a community organizer with the Red Umbrella Project working specifically with Trans Women of Color sex workers.  She is also an active member of the Audre Lorde Project and was the emcee of last year’s Trans Day of Remembrance event.  She is involved in national political organizing efforts for racial, economic, and gender justice.  In 2015 she participated in the Movement for Black Lives Convening in Ohio and in 2016 she participated in Black Girlz Rulez, a national convening of Black Trans Women in Denver.  She has experience with community engagement on political and artistic levels.  In 2016 she presented a session, “Ending the Racial & Gender Wealth Divide” at the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT) conference.  She is also an emerging vocal artist and sings a lot about issues facing Black Trans Women.


Kristi DiLallo is a Teaching Fellow at Columbia University, where she is currently pursuing her MFA in Nonfiction Writing. She is the founding editor of The Grief Diaries, an online magazine of art and writing about loss. Her own writing centers on her experience navigating the grief of parental incarceration, and her work has appeared in Fusion, Guernica, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. 








MJ Engel is a proud Milwaukee, WI native and a senior at Columbia University studying Sustainable Development and Women and Gender Studies. She is an intersectional feminist, environmental justice activist, and prison abolitionist. In high school, MJ co-founded Feminism = Equality, a consciousness raising movement that hosted teach-ins on issues of gender, race, and class. While in college, MJ has tutored in several adult detention centers and a juvenile detention center, interned at the Correctional Association of New York, and organized with the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. MJ recently produced Voices from Mixed Asian America, an oral history of mixed-Asian experiences and hopes to continue to amplify mixed race stories. You can find her behind the bar at Joe Coffee practicing her latte art. She is so excited to be a 2016-2017 Beyond the Bars Fellow to practice restorative justice, build solidarity, and learn how to love, radically.




Lauren Fox is currently a master’s candidate in Applied Statistics at Teachers College, Columbia University. She has spent the last 4 years supporting adolescents in schools and working to remove barriers in education for Black and Hispanic students. While working in under-resourced schools, she became hyper aware of both the large inequity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) attainment as well as the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline. This has informed her passion and research in the intersection of social justice and education. Her current graduate research focuses on the use of big data and statistical analysis to understand and influence educational outcomes. After her masters, Lauren hopes to continue use statistics to answer important questions about social justice and human rights.




Joss Greene is a white trans boy dedicated in the movements for prison abolition and trans liberation.  He is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Columbia University and his most recent scholarship focuses on transgender people’s reentry experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He has volunteered in New York City and the Bay Area doing HIV/AIDS health work, prisoner support, and trans power building.  He is passionate about skill sharing, moving resources to trans women of color leaders doing the work, and learning from our elders. He is invested in the long-term fight for a world where all trans people can live safe, full, beautiful lives free from cops or cages.




Lillian Hanan Al-Bilali has been inspired to deepen her understanding of how diverse communities can become more interconnected and, particularly, how shared experiences create space for dialogue — ever since she participated in the 2010 Leveraging Privilege for Social Change Jam. Since her college years, one of her most consistent passions has been issues of youth empowerment and Black Liberation. Her student activism at Hampton University focused on societal inequalities especially in regards to substandard education and high incarceration rates for youth of color. Following graduation, Hanan became an administrator at Children’s Arts and Science Workshops (CASW), a non-profit agency in New York City. Here, she mentored young people from the Washington Heights and Harlem communities by preparing them for college and for the work force. Wanting to have a deeper impact on the communities she was working with, Hanan returned to school to study Social Work at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. During her time she studied the school to prison pipeline, specifically in Wayne County. Her concentration in Social Policy and Evaluations allows her to focus on strengthening services offered through the non-profit sector at the state and local levels. She continues to make people her priority as a committed collaborator with organizations and initiatives that support underrepresented communities throughout Upper Manhattan and The Bronx.


Felicia A. Henry is the Restorative Justice Social Worker at the Brownsville Community Justice Center, a project of the Center for Court Innovation. In this capacity, Felicia oversees the Brownsville Youth Court program, Alternative to Incarceration programming, provides individual services to justice involved youth, and manages restorative practice initiatives. Felicia is the founder of Behind the Walls, Between the Lines (BTWBTL),a movement that uses the power of art to transcend racial lines while at the same time catalyzing necessary conversations about why those lines exist. Through spoken word and other art mediums, BTWBTL deeply and critically examines the visceral reality of incarceration and state-sponsored violence in order to empower people to drive real change in their communities. Although born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Felicia Henry has strong ties to her Caribbean roots. A Temple University alumna, Felicia received her Master of Social Work degree from the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Her background in both social work and criminal justice gives her the language to describe her own personal experiences and pushes her to use her platforms to share the stories of those impacted by racial injustice, especially to those who consider racism to be over, are averse to having discussions about racial justice, are not within the black and brown community, and/or are not well versed in racial justice principles. Felicia is honored to be a 2016-2017 Beyond the Bars Fellow.


Elisa Bokyung Kim is a Master of Science in Social Work candidate at Columbia University and has a Bachelor of Science in Applied Psychology at New York University. She is committed to social justice and anti-oppressive, anti-racist practice to change current systems and policies around criminal justice, immigration, education, and gender-based issues. She has experience with direct service, community organizing, and program development, serving marginalized communities. She currently interns at Bronx Community Solutions- The Center for Court Innovation, an alternative to incarceration organization. She makes recommendations to the judge and prosecutors for alternative sentencing options, and conducts individual and group counseling sessions for youth with misdemeanor charges. Prior to this experience, she interned at Bronx Legal Services, a civil legal agency, working with low-income New Yorkers on issues of immigration, domestic violence, housing, education, and public assistance. During her internship, she spearheaded a community needs assessment and helped publish a report on intimate partner violence in the Bronx. As a result, she spoke at a symposium to unveil the findings and mobilize elected officials to act on the expressed needs and improve current services and systems. Additionally, she interns at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a nonprofit organization that provides resettlement assistance and empowerment programs to North Korean refugees and defectors. During her time at LiNK, she helped develop and evaluate a leadership and mentorship program for North Korean college students in South Korea, and developed performance appraisal tools for all three offices of the organization. Currently, she is developing a leadership and management training program for staff in managerial positions. She is also an organizer for reproductive justice for APPI women and trans* people at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and a Beyond the Bars fellow at the Center for Justice.


Weishin Kerry Huang is a sacred activist and healing justice worker. His awakening to the urgent need for racial healing came when the Ferguson protests triggered his memories of the violence at Tiananmen Square, which led to his family’s immigration to the US. Weishin focuses on restorative justice, embodied practices, technology, and social innovation as strategies for undoing the harms of historical and ongoing oppression on individuals, communities, and institutions. Professionally, Weishin has over ten years experience in non-profit administration. In their past life as an actor and producer, Weishin developed over a dozen theater productions that explored social issues of immigration, food justice, and wealth. As a socially engaged Buddhist, Weishin is deeply committed to the lifelong practice of transforming personal and collective suffering with awareness and compassion. Currently, he is part of the Rangjung Prison Dharma Project, which facilitate meditation practices at Rikers. They love listening to people’s stories and aren’t shy on the dance floor.


An immigrant girl from Los Angeles, California, Esther Yerin Lee is a social justice advocate who is determined to make her life’s work fighting for racial and economic justice. She is a Masters in Social Work candidate at Columbia University and a leader at Columbia School of Social Work’s Criminal Justice Caucus. She is currently interning at the New York Asian Women’s Center facilitating a program for women who are referred through Human Trafficking Intervention Courts. Esther was formerly a mitigation intern at Federal Defenders of New York, Eastern District, focusing on re-entry work. She has done research internationally in Del Carmen, Surigao del Norte, Philippines with Dr. Robert Hawkins and the McSilver Institute on Poverty Policy and Research. Esther was born in Seoul, South Korea, grew up in Los Angeles, and has called New York home for the past 5 years. She received her Bachelor’s in Social Work from New York University where she was president of the Silver School of Social Work. Esther plans on going to law school to pursue an inter-disciplinary career as a lawyer who practices law with social work ethics. When she’s not advocating for criminal justice reform she’s binge watching Netflix.


Darren Mack is a social justice advocate and activist in New York City. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Darren was directly impacted by the criminal justice system at the age of 17. His first time in the prison system, he served a total of 20 years straight. During his incarceration, Darren was accepted into Bard College’s Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) where he earned his B.A. degree in Social Studies in 2013. Since his release Darren has been involved with the CUNY Black Male Initiative at City College mentoring and tutoring students. He also became a member of the Education from the Inside Out Coalition (EIO Coalition) working to remove statutory and practical educational barriers for individuals with criminal justice involvement. He advocated in front of the Black and Latino Caucus to push legislation to the ban the box and in front of the SUNY Board of Directors, which in 2016 decided to ban the box in all SUNY campuses. Darren is an active member of Just Leadership USA (JLUSA) and their Close Rikers campaign. His experience on Rikers Island was covered by Mass Story Lab at the New School and other periodicals. He was honored in 2016 to be an Emerging Leader recipient from JLUSA. He is currently working as a Project Coordinator for the Beyond the Bars Fellowship in The Center for Justice at Columbia University. He intends to pursue a MSW in 2017. Darren is proud to be a 2016-2017 Beyond the Bars Fellow.


Nico Montano, from Spring Valley, NY, via Argentina and El Salvador, is currently a research associate at the Center on Youth Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City. He works on issues of Young Adults in jails and prisons, focusing on alternative models for young people that are therapeutic rather than punitive. Prior to Vera, Nico conducted research in the UK as a Marshall Scholar. While in London, he explored issues concerning violence and collective memory, focusing on the Salvadoran Civil War, race, gender, and film. In Liverpool, Nico worked with RAPAR (Refugees and Asylum Participatory Action Research), examining the effects of detention and contact with police in Northern England on people seeking asylum in the UK. Nico has also conducted research in New York City regarding adolescent exposure to violence, youth involvement in gangs and organized crime in El Salvador and Albania, and perception of crime and policing in the South Bronx. He has also served as a John Jay – Vera fellow at Common Justice, and worked as an educational advocate for Community Connections for Youth in the Bronx. Aside from his criminal justice work, Nico is an avid photographer and film nerd, collaborating with other creative on making representative film and access to the arts. Nico holds an Msc from the London School of Economics and Political Science in Gender, Media, and Culture, an MA from the University of Liverpool in Research Methods in Sociology and Social Policy, and a BA from the CUNY Baccalaureate Program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, in Psychology of Juvenile Delinquency and International Criminology. He currently teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the Department of Interdisplinary Studies.


Ife Ko Nira, formally known as Keshad Adeniyi is a visionary with a heart for education and advocacy. Using spoken word as one of his tools of expression, Ife’s clever metaphors transform his life experiences into gems of wisdom, offering insight and encouragement to those who can connect. For the last 5 years his talents have allowed him to teach others in various schools, juvenile facilities, and prisons, both, locally and internationally through multiple organizations. His most extensive work has been in collaboration with the Prison Education Project (PEP). He has traveled to Uganda with PEP to teach in the prisons and schools. As a graduate of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and an advocate who hopes to use law and higher education to examine the linkages between mass incarceration and slavery. Currently he is earning his Master’s degree from New York University’s, American Studies Social Cultural Analysis program.



Jeffrey Ngeri is a social justice advocate and proud 2016-2017 Beyond the Bars Fellow at the Center for Justice at Columbia University.   Born and raised in New York City, Jeffrey has had a passion for social justice work from a young age.  He graduated from the High School of Law, Advocacy, and Community Justice, and he is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in liberal arts with a focus on business manage from CUNY Hostos Community College. Jeff became interested in justice work around mass incarceration, while working at the Columbia University School of Social Work where he was exposed to a larger community academics, activists and advocates working on the issues. This experience left an indelible effect on him and ignited his desire to be part of the solution to what he considers one of the most import civil rights issues of our times. Jeff is looking forward learning and participating in Beyond the Bars Fellowship activities. Upon graduation, Jeffrey’s ultimate




David Norman is a researcher, community educator, motivational speaker and social justice advocate living and working in New York City. David was born in was born in Harlem in 1948 and like many young Black men of time, received his early education in the streets.  David began experimenting with drugs and alcohol around the age of 10 years old and by the age of 14 had graduated to using and selling heroin on the streets of Harlem.  For years, David cycled in and out of the justice system with multiple misdemeanors, county and city jail terms.  He served the first of two New York State prison sentences from 1967 to 1969. It was upon release from his first prison bid that he first began to realize the transformative potential of education. He attended the borough of Manhattan Community College for 6 months in 1971, then graduated with an AOS degree in Accounting from Monroe Business School in 1977.  However, it was during his second prison stay from 1995 – 2000 that this full potential became manifest.  During that time, David began work as a peer counselor for Mohawk Counseling Services, conducting training programs, client assessments and referrals, and acting as a liaison between clients and outside agencies.  Upon his release, David continued to work as a counselor at Mount Vernon Hospital in the Access to Primary Care programIn May of 2016, David graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in philosophy and he is currently working at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health as researcher on a major longitudinal research study of HIV Positive adults in upstate New York and New York City.  His previous research work focused on the health needs of Hurricane Rita/Katrina evacuees. The results from this study were cited on the front page of the New York Times.

David is the recipient of numerous awards, fellowships and certifications. He is member of the Incarceration and Public Health Action Network, and beginning in January 2017 he will be a participant and panelist in a lecture series at Columbia University designed to examine the carceral continuum. Mr. Norman will be presenting a philosophical analysis of Mass Incarceration and will focus explicitly on the impact of the resulting cultural trauma on the African American identity. He is also proud to be a 2016-2017 Beyond the Bars Fellow.


Tia Ryans is a social justice advocate, student and performance artist who uses the arts to center the experiences of women in America’s mass incarceration epidemic.  Tia is currently an undergraduate student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she is also the vice president of the NJ STEP Mountainview Communities Student Organization, an Honor Society for Leadership and Success cohort, and a member of the LGBTQ Advisory Board.  Tia is also a current Beyond the Bars Fellow at Columbia University Formerly incarcerated for more than 10 years, Tia is a direct witness to the insidious and detrimental impact of the criminal justice system on women and families.  Since her release in 2015, Tia has been an active and vocal advocate for reform.  Her latest panel exploring mass incarceration and reunification with families, is one of the many ways Tia uses her voice and her platform to ensure the voices of all the past, present, and future victims in the prison industrial complex system are being heard.




Cassandra Severe, is a mother, student, survivor, activist, and change agent living and working in New Jersey. She is proud to be 2016-2017 Beyond the Bars Fellow at Columbia University’s Center for Justice. Cassandra holds an associate degree in Human and Social Services from Essex County College and she is currently pursuing a bachelors in social work at Rutgers University Outside of her academic pursuits, Cassandra works as Facility Coordinator and Counselor Intern at Integrity House, a multi-service agency that offers a full continuum of care for individuals with substance use disorders. Cassandra knows firsthand the difficulty and challenges people face after traumatic life experiences, thus she has made it her mission and passion to incorporate healing in her social work practices. She is trained in a range of social work modalities including relational gestalt therapy, co-occuring disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy, somatic experiencing, and a variety of approaches to the treatment of trauma. Cassandra intends to pursue a master’s degree in social work after completing her undergraduate degree. However, her ultimate goal is to open up a safe and sober living home for formerly incarcerated individuals.



Zacchaeus Stanton currently works as policy associate with the New York Policy Office of the Drug Policy Alliance. As policy associate, Zacchaeus is working to support forward-thinking policies that will end marijuana prohibition in New York State and address the harms caused by the failed drug war. Still deeply attached to his Texas roots, Zacchaeus is an alumnus (CC 16’) of Columbia University where his undergraduate research examined the effects of the drug war on youth and hip hop culture in the Gulf Coast region and aimed to advance harm reduction efforts relating to recreational prescription cough syrup use. Prior to joining DPA, Zacchaeus worked with the Columbia University Institute for Research in African-American Studies, the ACLU Racial Justice Program, Columbia Students Against Mass Incarceration, and the Columbia Center for Justice, where is proud to be a current Beyond the Bars Fellow. He is a staunch advocate for black lives, safe use, restorative justice, and community education. Outside of his academic and advocacy work, Zacchaeus has a ridiculous appetite for music with tastes for funk, blues, 90s R&B, country rap tunes, and DJ Screw (along with all of his descendants) in particular. In the southern tradition, he also fully supports the creation and consumption of quality gumbo and exceptional fried catfish.




Melissa Tanis works in Communications at the Osborne Association, an organization in NYC that serves communities by reducing crime and its human and economic costs. Melissa first decided she wanted to work in this field after reconnecting with her father who is currently incarcerated. Through her relationship with him, she began to see the brokenness of the criminal justice system and the punitive nature with which society chooses to treat people who are incarcerated. Melissa is passionate about changing the way we view and treat people who are incarcerated, no matter their crime of conviction, and also desires to support other families who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. She has shared her story in a variety of settings as a guest speaker and blogger, and as an advocate for others in her situation. She is currently working on capturing the details of her story, which she hopes to turn into a book. Melissa also is currently applying for graduate school to pursue a Master’s of Social Work.



David Thorpe is a Criminal and Social Justice Change Agent and Advocate currently working at the Fortune Society in New York City as the Director of Employment Services, and Educational & Vocational Counseling. One of six children, David grew up on public assistance in the Queens-Bridge housing development.  At 17 years of age, David dropped out of high school and obtained a GED.  In what can best be described as a life of turbulence and strife, David would serve over 22 years and 9 months in prison.  David graduated summa cum laude from St. John’s University with a 3.9 grade point average.  David is in his final semester of an MPA Program at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice where he also has a 3.9 grade point average. During his incarceration David worked in the prison law library, served as liaison to the prison administration on prisoner issues, served on grievance committees, and volunteered in prisoner ran organizations committed to restorative justice. This was the beginning of David’s interest in philosophy, sociology, criminology, advocacy, and policy analysis. Since his release from prison over 10 years ago, David has worked in a professional capacity, advocating for consumers of alternative to incarceration, workforce development, and re-entry programs who have had justice involvement.  David also previously worked for the Osborne Association, The East River Development Alliance (aka Urban Upbound), and TNT Forensic Solutions.   David believes that now, more than ever, progressive, structured, and inclusive policy advocacy is needed to bring into balance a criminal justice system that is just, and that does not just serve the rich and politically connected.  David is proud to be a 2016-2017 Beyond the Bars Fellow at the Center for Justice at Columbia University.



Aretta White, a resident of Brooklyn, New York is a 2016-2017 Beyond the Bars Fellow at Columbia University’s Center for Justice in New York City.  Aretta has over twenty years of experience as an administrative professional in the private sector.  She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Marymount Manhattan College and is currently working towards a degree in Legal Studies at Berkeley College in New York City.  As an advocate for justice, Aretta believes whole-heartedly in second chances and hopes to spend her career fighting for those of who have been negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. Aretta is also an active participant in justice related advocacy and recently participated in the march to shut down Riker’s Island.  Besides lending a helping hand to those in need, she enjoys art, reading, traveling and spending time with her family.



Sarah Zarba is a first year graduate student at Columbia School of Social Work, and alumna of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Motivated by her own personal experience in the juvenile and adult correctional systems, Sarah has developed a strong and unwavering passion for criminal justice reform. Sarah works full time as a coordinator for the Vera Institute of Justice and has previous experience working directly with justice involved women as a house monitor and CASAC-T at Anchor House, Inc., a faith-based residential treatment program in Brooklyn, NY. She is the Vice President and co-founder of the #BeyondTheBox Initiative at Columbia which calls to remove the conviction question from all college applications, to end the stigma associated with having a criminal record and making education more accessible for formerly incarcerated people. She is also a group facilitator at Nassau County Correctional facility as well as a member of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.