On Friday afternoon, a keynote speech by Michael Romano ’94 kicked off the University’s annual Shasha Seminar for Human Concern. This year’s Shasha topic was “The Role of the University in the Era of Mass Incarceration.” Running two days, the seminar was a collection of panels that brought in professionals, students, alumni, and faculty to discuss what universities could do about an issue that is plaguing the United States.
“Shasha is an educational forum for Wesleyan alumni, parents and friends that provides an opportunity to explore issues of global concern in a small seminar environment,” the Shasha 2016 schedule website reads. “This year we will focus on mass incarceration and the University’s role in this seemingly intractable problem.”
Romano is currently a professor at Stanford University Law School, where he is the Director and Co-Founder of the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project. He is counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and was a co-author of Proposition 36, or the “Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012,” and Proposition 47, or the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014.”
In his first time back since graduating in 1994, Romano began with connecting his graduation year with being the height of the “Tough on Crime” era.
“1994 was a watershed moment for mass incarceration in the United States and the work that I do in particular,” Romano said. “It was the year that California and 30 other states, the federal government passed the three strikes laws.”
The habitual offender laws, or the three strikes laws, mandates courts to impose harsher sentences on people if they had been previously convicted of two prior criminal offenses. In California, these two prior offenses could be misdemeanor offenses, and the third offense could result in a long prison sentence or even life imprisonment.
Romano began his slides with a graph showing the number of prisoners per capita in several countries, with the United States as having the highest number, followed by Russia. He followed the graphs with photos of the overcrowded conditions that plague California prisons. He also stated that mass incarceration was the worst in California.
“If you look at this photo, it’s a triple bunk situation, with row after row after row of folks,” Romano said. “Close quarters exacerbate the worst conditions in prisons, [they] exacerbate the spread of disease, violence….There are very few guards able to keep peace when you have situations like this, communities like this.”
Another important issue that comes with overcrowding is the treatment of medically and mentally ill inmates. Due to overcrowding, treatment and rehabilitation facilities have virtually vanished because the prisons were squeezed to capacity. After explaining this, Romano showed a photo of group therapy in which prisoners are placed into individual telephone booth-sized cages.
“Since 1994 through today, the California prison systems are unconstitutional in terms of their treatment of medically and mentally ill inmates,” Romano said. “Half of the prisoners in California are considered mentally ill and are not receiving [any] mental health treatment, or not receiving adequate treatment.”
Romano also placed the issue of incarceration with the larger problem of institutionalized racism. He stated that the three strikes law disproportionately affects African Americans. He cited that within the California population, six percent are African American, 28 percent are Latinx, 40 percent are white, and 26 percent are other races. However, within prison populations, 28 percent are African American, 41 percent are Latinx, 23 percent are white, and 6 percent are other races.
“[Racism in mass incarceration] is a subject of books, and Ph.D. theses, looking at driving while black, and racial profiling, and stop-and-frisk,” Romano said. “When we started focusing on three strikes work in California, we saw there was another massive jump in the applicability, especially in African Americans.”
In 2006, Romano moved to California and started a program at the Stanford Law School to address this problem, especially those who he felt were unfairly sentenced to life due to the three strikes law.
“We’re not the innocent project, we’re the guilty project,” Romano said. “We just felt that doing life sentences for these un-violent crimes was incredibly unjust. Sometimes we felt that these were the most unjust laws in the country.”
Romano, along with students at Stanford, began petitioning for those who were convicted under life sentences to be freed. Eventually, this was so successful that it became a movement.
Romano also noticed that upon release from federal prisons, people would have no way to get back to their home states.
“You get sentenced to the federal system, and you could be sent anywhere,” Romano said. “You could be arrested in Connecticut, sentenced to Louisiana, and you would have to report back to Connecticut.”
He then started the Ride Home program to help the prisoners return home. The program also helps prisoners get accustomed to living life outside the prison walls.
“We’ve hired about a half-dozen drivers to go out and pick them up,” Romano said. “They meet them at the prison gates, take them out to lunch and try to slowly reintegrate, or help immediate soft landing after being in prison for so many years. We take them to Target and tell them to buy shampoo. It’s kind of like this test experience. They haven’t been able to go to the bathroom without permission and now they can pick their shampoo! It becomes overwhelming.”
Last year, the White House contacted Romano and asked if they would be willing to replicate the program for those receiving clemency from the President. Now, the program has been extended throughout the country.
Romano ended the talk by establishing what the University could do to help with the issue of mass incarceration. In particular, he mentioned several points, including addressing poverty, racism, education, and social safety nets; changing hearts and minds; data analysis, because of the lack of data available on mass incarceration; reducing prison sentences; reducing crime rates; and helping with mental health and addiction.
The talk ended with a Q&A in which attendees inquired about his work.
Students who attended were excited by Romano’s talk.
“Most broadly, I’m so happy that this type of conversation is happening on campus, not just among students but most people, [and that] bridges are being created between students that are still on campus and people who are doing this work in the larger society,” Laura McIntyre ’17 said.
Lizzie Shackney ’17 echoed her sentiment.
“I was really impressed by the emphasis on the role of social work, and the importance of guiding people back into the world after they’ve been incarcerated,” she said. “I feel that [the talk] could’ve focused on the law side of things, but I heard so much about the Ride Home project and things like that. I think it’s important for us to value those services. I was happy to hear about that.”