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SPEAR pursues prison and education reform

For 23 hours between Oct. 22 and 23, many students crowded curiously around the outside of Frist Campus Center, watching a University student sit motionless and alone inside of a 7x9 foot box. Word spread quickly, and many students soon knew about the performance, also known as “7x9”; the box represents the size of cell that prisoners in solitary confinement live in. What some students may not have known was that “7x9” was planned by a student organization called Students for Prison Education and Reform.

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SPEAR was formed four years ago, and for the past three years it has performed the solitary confinement piece, which has also been done at several other colleges.

“Solitary confinement is an issue we worked a lot on, because it’s one of the most profound problems of the criminal justice system, and it’s one of the easiest to explain to people,” co-president Daniel Teehan ’17 said. “We wanted to do it in a thoughtful and meaningful way ... and we wanted to put a seven foot by nine foot space in a place where people wouldn’t normally see it.”

However, SPEAR’s work is not just limited to protesting against solitary confinement. There are five committees: Events, Research, Advocacy, Communications and Education, which each have their own specific projects including workforce preparation programs and letter-writing campaigns. But what defines SPEAR as an organization?

“SPEAR draws crowds of people who are interested in social justice issues,” Teehan said. “But having a group that’s specifically focused on issues of mass incarceration is important, because prisons are a place where many of the most profound issues in our society, be it systemic racism or problems with integration, surveillance, policing, are all coalesced in the criminal justice system.”

Co-president Clarissa Kimmey ’16 initially found herself interested in the educational aspects of the prison system through the Petey Greene Program, which is a University tutoring program that works with incarcerated students in two youth correctional facilities, helping them prepare for their high school equivalency exams.

“I really got interested in advocacy against mass incarceration, because I was working with people who had been impacted by our justice system in really problematic ways ... who were really smart and talented, but were facing many challenges because of their criminal history,” Kimmey said.

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Kimmey then got involved with SPEAR’s Education Committee because she hoped to help give incarcerated persons a chance to achieve their goals, specifically in regards to presenting themselves to future employers and schools. Much of her efforts have gone into the creation of a workforce preparation program, also known as Princeton Reentry Preparation Program, that is run at three correctional facilities.

“We do resume-writing, interview skills, creating a space to think about the job search and future employment goals,” Kimmey said. “In the prison system, your achievements and agency and potential isn’t recognized … so to create a space where people could recognize all the cool things they had done with their life was great.”

One educational reform SPEAR is working on which relates directly to the University is the Admissions Opportunity Campaign. The goal of the campaign is to remove questions about criminal history from applications to the University.

“We think it’s really problematic to include the question on the application because it is so prejudicial, and admissions officers aren’t necessarily trained on how to deal with those kind of questions,” Kimmey explained.

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The Admissions Opportunity Campaign is working within a national coalition called Abolish the Box, which is directing its efforts to removing questions about criminal history on the Common Application.

This week, SPEAR launched another campaign called “Who Do We Kill?” which is both a memorial to those who have received the death penalty and a protest against the institution of capital punishment.

“On the day that someone is scheduled to be executed, we will send out an email that will include biographical information about the person which isn’t available in the media,” Kimmey said. “We’ve also written to people on death row, hoping to give them a chance to share their voice and not just writing about them. We’ll also have pictures of them, a letter or information about them in Frist.”

SPEAR invited Anthony Ray Hinton, who was on death row for 30 years before being exonerated, to speak on Monday before launching the campaign. Students who wished to get involved wore a black ribbon distributed as a tribute to those who have died after receiving the death penalty.

Kimmey and Teehan encourage students looking to get involved to come to their full-group meetings, which take place on Monday at 8 p.m. in East Pyne 111.

“There is a lot going on. This year we had someone who was affected by solitary confinement Skype in, we had someone who runs a program focused on women’s incarceration come and speak to us, and we’re having a graduate student who has worked a lot on incarceration issues come and speak to us — so they’re very educational and as a social justice group, we try to be very inclusive so anyone who is interested can come at any time,” Kimmey said.

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