From Friday, Oct. 14 through Sunday, Oct. 16, University students, faculty, and alumni will participate in a three-day, seminar-style forum tackling “The Role of the University in the Era of Mass Incarceration.”

This is the topic of this year’s Shasha Seminar for Human Concern. The Shasha Seminar is an annual educational forum which provides University community members with the opportunity to engage in discourse about issues of global concern.

The conference will center around the role that the University can play to reduce its role in the mass carceral state. As of today, the United States houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, the majority of whom are poor and predominantly undereducated. Most of those incarcerated did not get a college education, and once released, they face limited employment opportunities. The rate of recidivism is 60 percent. Children with incarcerated parents are also at a greater risk of eventually becoming incarcerated themselves.

Noah Barth, the Program Manager for the Center of Prison Education at the University, spoke to how the University can get involved in direct intervention in this seemingly inevitable cycle. He facilitates the College in Prison Program, a project founded in 2009 in which University professors and undergraduate tutors teach full-bodied courses to currently incarcerated students at the Cheshire Prison Correctional Institution and the York Correctional Institution, both in Connecticut.

Barth spoke with The Argus about what will be discussed at the conference.

“Certainly, we will be speaking of college-in-prison programs, more broadly than just Wesleyan’s, but also other roles that the university can play in this context,” Barth said. “We want to bring the conversation to a broader place than beyond one specific intervention that our program is focusing on.”

The keynote speaker will open the seminar from a legislative perspective with Michael Romano ’94, now a professor at Stanford Law School. Romano is the Co-Founder and Director of the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project.

He co-authored Proposition 36, which overturned California’s “three-strikes” law, and retroactively reformed the sentences of those imprisoned through the law. Currently, he is assisting the White House with President Obama’s initiative to grant clemency to nonviolent drug offenders and with law enforcement officials in California on police shootings.

He will get the conference started by speaking about the significance of the issue of mass incarceration in the country. 

The main issue that the conference will focus on is the role that the University can play vis-à-vis the carceral state. The questions that will be asked are as follows: What roles do universities have to play, how much of it is an imperative, and how much of it is a choice? And if it is a choice, how do you make that choice? What are the elements that might compel a university to make those choices?

Barth explained that during the conference, the University’s role will be examined from a variety of angles. Current and recent undergraduates will talk about how involvement in programs like the University’s have impacted their studies as well as their career trajectory, and professors will talk about how their interactions with scholarship programs and other universities played larger roles in influencing their work. There will also be formerly incarcerated students speaking about their experiences and also providing their points of view on what a university’s responsibilities might be.

What happens to people after they leave prison? Barth elaborated on how university programs can have an impact on an individual’s post-prison life.

“College-In-Prison programs are often viewed through the lens of recidivism rates and what happens to people after they leave prison,” Barth said. “Access to higher education while in prison has been shown to be an extremely effective intervention in reducing recidivism rates. That has been the case with our students; we’ve seen them able to stay free of further criminal justice contact, as well as success in finding employment, continuing their education. There is actually one student who is currently enrolled as a full-time student at Wesleyan.”

But, as Barth explained, the impact of the University’s College-In-Prison program goes far beyond this. 

“I think it’s important that we don’t focus strictly on economic outcomes, or these quantifiables, which are very tempting to focus on,” Barth said. “I think the impact is a little greater than that. We’ve seen that our effect on [currently incarcerated prisoners] has had a life-changing effect on them. In terms of how they view themselves, in terms of the way that they’re able to understand and process their situation, as well as how they relate to others now. I think it has had very positive social outcomes for those that are not being released anytime soon in terms of how they relate to their communities, both inside and outside the prison. We’ve had students come back to us and talk about tutoring their children, being able to help them do their homework, and I think that’s a very powerful thing.”

The conference will consist of four panels throughout a three-day period in which 22 speakers will focus on various issues. There will be University professors involved in the line of work, visiting professors, practitioners in the nonprofit sectors, senior members of the Connecticut government, as well as formerly incarcerated individuals and alumni of the College in Prison Program.

One professor who will be speaking is Lori Gruen, the William Griffin Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the Science in Society and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. As a specialist in ethical theory and practice, Gruen will be speaking of her experience teaching political philosophy to incarcerated students at Cheshire for the past seven years.

“My experience has fundamentally transformed not only my pedagogy but my scholarship,” Gruen said in an email to The Argus. “I think the ethical and political issues that mass incarceration raise, questions about captivity but also about dignity, about violence, about domination, about systematizing the idea that some people are disposable, should change how philosophers and many other scholars think about what and how we teach and theorize. Scholars who are trying to engage with public life in particular must examine this major social problem of our times.”

Gruen also shared her views on the role of the University in this issue.

“Universities are sites of diverse activities and one of the central roles, I think, that universities can play in our society is to provide a place where possibilities for more just social relations can be imagined, discussed, and debated,” Gruen said.

The concluding speaker will be Reginald Dwayne Betts, a formerly incarcerated writer, memoirist, and poet. Betts is the author of three novels, “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison,” “Shahid Reads His Own Palm,” and “Bastards of the Reagan Era.” Betts was incarcerated at age 16, and spent eight years behind bars. During his time in prison, he completed high school and began writing. After being released, he completed his BA and MFA degrees and is currently enrolled at Yale Law School. He will speak on juvenile sentencing, non-discriminatory admissions policies, and the “redemptive power of education.”

Another key question that will be posed relates to what members of the University community can do to help. Besides scholarship through teaching and tutoring, there is advocacy, testimony, and providing expert witness.

Another key aspect in which universities have been involved is the “Ban-the-Box” campaign. They are contesting whether universities ought to screen either student applications or employment applications for someone’s criminal background. All of these policies speak to how people will be able to successfully re-enter society after serving a sentence.

The Shasha Seminar is endowed by James Shasha ’50. A resident of Argentina, Shasha had been unable to attend the last few seminars. Seminar registrants (alumni, parents, students, and faculty) will pay a $250 fee and stay at the Inn at Middletown and the Radisson Hotel Cromwell.

This year’s Shasha Seminar’s main goal is to bring the subject into larger public discussion.

“The key idea is to bring other alumni back to campus so they can engage in intellectual discourse, to raise awareness,” Barth said. “But it is also a way to encourage people to act. There are a number of ways to get involved on campus, we have a number of different projects going on at all times. The key way for professors to be involved is to teach a course or individual lecture. But again, the intention is to raise awareness and to show how the university can be active in relation to the system of mass incarceration. The diversity of roles we can take are vast, and the conference will aim to encourage conversation so that people can understand and consider the issue from a multitude of angles, which, in turn, might lead to a multitude of different outcomes.”

  • Noah Barth

    Two small but important corrections:

    1. The event is October 14-15. The opening keynote, Friday, October 14th at 430pm is open to the public

    2. Registration fees are $25 for students, $100 for all others