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Panelists Discuss Prison Reform, Emphasize Diversity and Local Action

A Harvard student sits silently to protest solitary confinement in correctional facilities in April.
A Harvard student sits silently to protest solitary confinement in correctional facilities in April. By Jacqueline S. Chea
By James S. Bikales, Contributing Writer

Five student organizations convened a panel discussion on mass incarceration in Emerson Hall Thursday that emphasized why students, regardless of their background, should join efforts for prison reform.

Panelists included activists and academics who examine the conditions of many U.S. prisons. Douglas Rogers, founder of Black and Pink — an organization representing BGLTQ prisoners that advocates for an end to the prison industrial complex — and Arthur Bembury, executive director of The Partakers — a mentorship program for prisoners pursuing college degrees — spoke from the perspective of former prisoners now working towards reform.

Christine M. Mitchell, a Harvard School of Public Health student, spoke about her work with DeeperThanWater, an environmental justice coalition that works to improve living conditions in prisons. The three panelists and History and Literature Lecturer Emily K. Pope-Obeda spoke to more than 50 students and prison reform activists about their research and advocacy on issues related to the prison system.

Co-sponsored by Harvard College Project for Justice, Harvard College Act on a Dream, Harvard Black Students Association, Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee, and Harvard Organization for Prison Education and Reform, the discussion — called "America in Chains: A Panel Discussion on Mass Incarceration" — aimed to bring issues of mass incarceration to campus conversation.

“Mass incarceration is an issue that’s easy to become disconnected from, but it’s one of the most pressing issues of our generation,” Leonardo A. Garcia ’21 said. Garcia, who helped organize the event, is the intersectionality co-chair of Act on a Dream. He said he hoped the talk would “catalyze energy to work towards reform.”

Organizers intentionally invited a diverse set of groups to the event, Garcia said.

“This campus has a lot of organizations that work towards similar goals, yet there’s not enough coalition building a lot of the time,” he said. “This event is really showcasing intersectionality and the power of coalition building.”

Diversity featured prominently in the panel discussion. Panelists said the effects of mass incarceration are felt by a wide range of communities, which is why all students should get involved in reform efforts.

Bembury called prison reform the “new Civil Rights Movement.”

Two of the panelists, Rogers and Bembury, were formerly incarcerated, and Garcia said “destigmatizing” incarceration was another goal of the event.

“I want students to see them for who they are: incredible assets to their community in ways that prisoners are not frequently viewed,” he said of Rogers and Bembury.

The event took place the same day students at the College voted on an Undergraduate Council ballot referendum asking whether the University should divest its “holdings in the Prison-Industrial Complex.” In the final tally, 1,984 students voted for the measure, with 584 voting against.

In an October interview ahead of the student vote, University President Lawrence S. Bacow reiterated administrators' long-standing stance against using the endowment as tool for activism.

"The University should not use the endowment... to achieve political ends or particular policy ends,” he said.

Christie A. Jackson ’21, one of the event organizers and a member of Harvard Project for Justice, said that while the event was not deliberately timed to coincide with the UC election, she was happy it was held while the issue was at the forefront of campus discourse.

Two of the panelists mentioned Harvard’s divestment as an important step towards wider reform.

“If Harvard divests from prisons, that is national news. We need to make that happen,” Mitchell said.

Members of the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign were present at the panel, and said they felt the discussion was important in raising awareness for their cause.

“When they were discussing how to get involved, a lot of the panelists gave local examples, even on Harvard’s campus. If we push Harvard to divest, that is one way to fight this fight,” Salma Abdelrahman ’20, the organization’s co-president, said.

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