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KIMORA – SHE USES only one name – has taken on what may seem a quixotic mission: to encourage students who intend to become police, corrections or probation officers to be ethical – if not happy – in their work. She sets the same goal for the teenage prisoners with whom she works.
“I find a lot of misery in the criminal justice field – policing, the courts and corrections,” says this adjunct associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who also is an ordained minister. “Many don’t like their jobs, and no one wakes up wanting to get arrested and have people yell at them. I’m for justice, a set of ethics and a humane way of treating people that can lead to joy and a more productive life.”
Other countries take a different approach than the United States. In Slovenia and Kingston, Ontario, for example, correction officers may hug prisoners who are upset. Some use neutral terminology to refer to prisoners, such as “participant” instead of “inmate.” And then there are changes in routine that, Kimora says, need to be made to encourage respect by everyone inside a prison.
“When I walk down the halls of jails and prisons in New York, Utah and California, participants are supposed to turn their backs and put their hands on the wall. There is shaming constantly, which tears apart what we’re trying to do in the classroom” to get the teenagers and adults to reduce violence, change their lives and not return to jail or prison
The Princeton Review sums up Kimora’s approach – at John Jay or in treatment programs in and out of jails and prisons through work at the Osborne Association, the state’s oldest offender-aid organization – with this quote: “Unless we question what we are learning, we are capable of becoming an uncritical thinker who could learn to victimize others.”
Could the road to workplace contentment – if not joy – for John Jay alumni and prisoners start with critical thinking?
Cognitive skills development is indeed a key facet of the program that Kimora promotes as education director for treatment and prevention services at Osborne’s El Rio substance abuse treatment program.
In prisons and jails, where she spends a third of her work time, Kimora leads Osborne’s facilitators. “Much can be done if people view one another in a different way. Our participants will say, ‘I’m a criminal.’ They’re 16 to 18 years old and think their lives are over. I say, ‘You’re not a criminal now. You’re looking at me now and I need you to be a leader in your community.'”
At John Jay, which she represents on the University Faculty Senate, Kimora’s courses include “Treatment of the Offender,” “Corrections and the Media” and “Administration of Juvenile Justice.”
Senior Popy Begum took Kimora’s comparative “International Penal Systems” class and now interns at Osborne. “She’s very interested in seeing students excel academically,” says Begum. “If you have a different idea, she respects it. She uses current events to critique what’s happening now. She asks students not to single out any group of people,” but to look at offenders as individuals.
Begum is seeking both Ph.D. and J.D. degrees, hoping to become a criminologist focusing on gender. She also intends to work with and study street children and female offenders in Bangladesh, from where her family emigrated to Astoria when she was 8 months old.
“I want students to know that people don’t inherently want to be evil,” Kimora says. “They become whatever they become because of circumstances, but that’s not who they are or have to be.”