Supporting change within New York City's jail system

By Karen Shih

Julia Szendro
Julia Szendro, MA COEX'18, Topol Fellow in Nonviolence Practice 2016-2017

As New York City seeks major reforms for its Department of Correction (DOC), which oversees jails including those on Rikers Island, Julia Szendro, MA COEX’18, is part of a team working to usher in this new era. 

“The goal, as the mayor says, is for jails to be safer for staff and incarcerated people,” she says. 

As a policy analyst in the DOC’s Intergovernmental Affairs Unit, she serves as a bridge between the DOC and external partners and oversight agencies, such as the city council, the mayor’s office and the state legislature. She reports on key issues and helps implement new policies, often aimed at preventing violence in the correctional facilities. For example, over the last year, she’s worked on housing for young adults and screening of people who are found with weapons. 

A new project she’s excited about is defining and measuring culture change for staff members as the DOC counts down to the closing of Rikers by 2026. The DOC is taking cues from the Norwegian correctional system as it builds four new jails, which could include adding more light and increasing programming space. 

But just changing the physical infrastructure isn’t enough. “We have to bring the uniform staff with us on this journey—they’re a big part of the transformation,” Szendro says. It’s early in the process, but “it’s exciting that there’s investment and support from the city.”  

Szendro first became interested in prison reform as an undergraduate student at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she was mentored by several formerly incarcerated people through her studies and internships.  

“That sparked my passion, seeing how my mentors had transformed themselves and became incredible advocates for formerly incarcerated people,” she says. 

After graduation, she spent a year in Hungary as a Fulbright Scholar before moving to New Mexico to do social work. She ran a mentoring project for  teens who were aging out of foster care, and through that experience, she met two trained mediators who served as incredible mentors, sparking her interest in mediation. While in New Mexico, she also continued to work with incarcerated people by becoming a facilitator of a non-violent communication course in prisons.  But after nearly four years, she was ready to tackle systems-level change—and Heller’s MA in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence program was the perfect fit. 

The flexibility of the COEX program allowed her to focus her studies through the lens of prison reform, and gave her the chance to take a Social Impact MBA class and courses at the Harvard Program on Negotiation. 

She also took full advantage of the opportunities in the Boston area to do not one, but three practicum assignments. “That was a huge advantage going into the workforce, for sure.” 

The first was with the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration, where she helped develop a pilot mediation program for people leaving prison in Massachusetts. The second was with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, where she revived a mediation program for staff members who work at state prisons, offering mediation and trainings on conflict management. During that internship, she had the opportunity to tour many correctional facilities, and made a connection with one of the people who gave her a tour. He invited her to work with him on a re-entry program for people leaving maximum security prison, which was her third internship. 

After graduating from Heller, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to return to New York City. But she reconnected with a former senior leader of John Jay College, who told her about an opportunity at the NYC Department of Correction. 

“I strive to bring a conflict sensitive lens to my work” every day, Szendro says. “I am adapting the principles and tools of conflict resolution as I work to build partnerships for change implementation.” 

She encourages others to consider following her path, working within systems to create change. 

“We need everybody, from advocates on the outside to people with perspectives and values inside,” Szendro says.