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Photo courtesy of Amanda Eisenhour ’21

On April 12 and 13, over 200 people joined the Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) for their sixth annual conference, entitled “Tracing the Violence.”

According to the event program, the conference was centered around understanding the origins of violence and recognizing “that policies and prisons are themselves sources of violence.” 

The conference this year assessed “how and why a massive segment of the incarcerated population is left out of the movement of reform — and sometimes even further vilified by reformers.” Conference attendees explored what violent crime is, how people “(mis)understand” it, and the consequences of reforms that are “only for non-violent offenders.”

SPEAR Co-President Masha Miura ’21 said the goal of the conference was to “build a network of student groups across the country who are doing similar abolitionist work so that we can act in solidarity to one another.”

The conference hosted two interactive workshop sessions for students interested in how to organize on their campus.

“The conference was really special because it brought together incredible organizers, academics, and students to share truly radical and inspiring ideas about abolition, transformative justice, and rethinking violence into a setting where those perspectives are rarely institutionally supported, much less respected,” SPEAR Co-President Amanda Eisenhour ’21 told The Daily Princetonian.

The conference opened on Friday with a talk from Michelle Jones, a doctoral student in the American Studies program at New York University, followed by a screening of Free Men, a documentary by activist Kenneth Reams.

Reams was on death row for 25 years until the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed his death penalty in 2018. The documentary, narrated by Reams, depicts his time in solitary confinement on death row, during which he became “a painter, a poet, the founder of a non-profit, and an art event organizer — while fighting at the same time for justice.”

The documentary showing was followed by a call with Reams, who remains incarcerated. Among other things, Reams discussed why he began creating art in prison. He was inspired after reading a book by Wilbert Rideau, a former death row inmate. Reams got into contact with Rideau, who visited him in prison and told him to utilize his natural talents. According to Reams, he had been told this before, but it was only after speaking with Rideau that “the lightbulb went off.”

“And so I started creating artwork telling stories about the history, the practice, the laws of capital punishment in America. That’s what I’m doing today,” he said.

Reams floated the idea of presenting his artwork at the University.

“I would like to bring an exhibit to Princeton if you all will have me,” he said. “Me and Isabelle [his wife] would love to come back and present some of our art to you all.”

Eisenhour said the screening and call were “incredibly special because prisons, and solitary confinement in particular, are constructed to prevent voices like his from reaching the public.”

“[Reams’] humor and ability to connect with the audience was amazing, and definitely inspired people to join the campaign to free him,” Eisenhour added.

The second day of the conference opened with Dr. Marie Gottschalk, a professor in the Department of Political Science at University of Pennsylvania, who gave a talk entitled “Race, Crime, and Punishment: Ten Things Everyone Should Know about Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice Reform.” Afterwards, Truthout social media manager Kelly M. Hayes, Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota Lena Carla Palacios, and formerly incarcerated activist and writer Donna Hylton discussed how to respond to critics of prison reform concerned about violent crime. 

A second panel followed, in which attorney and organizer Andrea Ritchie, author and freelance journalist Victoria Law, and Associate Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies and Director of the Women’s Center at DePaul University Ann Russo discussed sexual assault and gender-based violence and discussed difficult questions including how we avoid turning to a violent system to curb sexual violence, how we can take gender-based violence seriously without expanding criminalization, and how we can fight against both gendered violence and mass criminalization at the same time?”

Multiple workshops following the panels were aimed at helping students start or build organizations dedicated to anti-carceral work. These workshops included “Restorative Justice in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System,“ “Preventing Gun Violence at the Community Level,“ “Ending Solitary Confinement: How We Built a Coalition in New Jersey,“ and “Organizing with Black Panthers.”

The conference continued with a panel consisting of Co-Executive Director at the Chicago Torture Justice Center Cindy Eigler, activst with the Chicago Torture Justice Center Gregory Banks, and community organizer Timothy Chau Rose. The panel looked “at how systems of criminalization are themselves violent, focusing on one of the most controversial cases in Chicago's civil rights history: the Jon Burge Cases,” according to the event program. The Jon Burge Cases “spawned the first nationwide example of city-sponsored reparations,” in response to former Chicago Police Chief Jon Burge overseeing the torture and forced confessions of hundreds of falsely accused men.

The closing plenary was delivered by scholar activist James Kilgore on the spread of the carceral state and systemic violence. Kilgore is an activist, writer, researcher, and director of the Challenging E-Carceration project, which focuses on developing critical responses to electronic monitoring and other carceral technologies, according to the event program.

Overall, SPEAR used the conference to address their goal “to grow a movement that builds power by embracing and acting upon issues of structural violence through drawing on notions of restorative and transformative justice, international histories of reconciliation and reparations, and radical and revolutionary ideology,” as stated by the event program, and Miura and Eisenhour were both pleased with how the event went.

“This year we saw a great turnout of both students and activists,” Miura noted.

She hopes University students will continue to engage with SPEAR activities on campus, imploring students “to check out the Ban the Box campaign, as it directly affects our campus’s role in upholding the carceral state, and to watch the Woke Wednesdays video about it.”

Conference organizer Jackson Vail ’21 found the conference rewarding and was grateful to all involved.

“It was really inspiring to be in an environment where a society that meets everyone's needs could be imagined and where people could rigorously discuss what a world without prisons would look like,” Vail said.

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