In the Science Center Plaza Wednesday night, Sarah E. Blatt-Herold ’18 stood inside a seven foot by nine foot rectangle marked by blue tape. In her hands was a sign asking, “How should we change the prison system?”
Blatt-Herold was one of 23 students who took turns holding vigil to protest juvenile solitary confinement. This 23-hour silent vigil began Wednesday at 7p.m. and ended at 6p.m. the following evening. The rectangle was meant to represent the size of a solitary confinement cell, and the 23 hours represented the number of hours each day a prisoner would spend in the cell.
“The point about it is to make people stop and think for a second,” said Blatt-Herold, who is also the event’s organizer.
The protest was called 7x9, a national movement that occurred across 12 American universities this October. This particular protest was organized by the Harvard Undergraduate Organization for Prison Education and Reform, a subdivision of the Phillips Brooks House Association.
Eva Shang ’17, HOPE’s education director, said that this year’s event was more action-oriented, as the protest included a petition against juvenile solitary confinement which spectators could sign.
Participants said that the vigil provides a visual representation for the abstract idea of solitary confinement.
“I think for a lot of people at Harvard, it’s an issue that maybe they know about intellectually but it’s not present in their minds,” said Henry M. Gomory ’17, who participated in 7x9 last year. “It doesn’t come up in everyday life.”
For some protest participants, the event put everything in perspective. “The whole ethos of our society is embedded in technology….so imagine staring at a brick wall for that long….you’re thinking about PSETs. They’re thinking about nothing,” said Larry Cherkasov ’18, who took the protest’s second shift.
Rachel P. Thompson ’16, who also protested last year, said that HOPE is trying to utilize the Harvard name to the group’s advantage.
“We are trying to use it as a gift,” she said. “Maybe we can leverage our position.”
7x9 originated at Princeton University, and Shang brought the movement to Harvard in 2014. Students at Harvard held the vigil for the first time last fall.
Shang and Thompson both said the late-hour shifts helped them better empathize with prisoners.
“It’s not so much about raising awareness as much as it is about just being there and thinking about the people who are going through this process,” Shang said. “There’s really a sense of tremendous solidarity.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: October 18, 2015
An earlier version of this article misquoted the writing on a poster held by a protester at the solitary confinement vigil. In fact, the poster asked "How should we change the prison system," not "what can you do" to change it.
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