Left to right: NYS Senator Bill Perkins, Angela Y. Davis, NYS Senator Velmanette Montgomery, and Executive Director of The Correctional Association of New York Soffiyah Elijah. Photo courtesy of NYS Senator Velmanette Montgomery. Photo Credit: J. Vogel.
 
 
Noted scholar and internationally acclaimed social justice activist Angela Y. Davis addressed a crowd of about 900 people at Lerner Hall on March 23rd about the need to transform the criminal justice system. Her talk was delivered at the opening of Removing the Bars: TAKE ACTION, a conference on criminal justice issues.
 
Davis’s talk drew students and faculty from many different disciplines across Columbia University as well as from many other universities in the city.  They were joined by activists and leaders from across the wide spectrum of criminal justice, including former prisoners, many of whom are now students and community leaders. 
 
Among those in attendance were New York State Senators Bill Perkins and Velmanette Montgomery. Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, introduced Davis, a professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The program culminated with a moving event, "Making the Invisible, Visible," when members of the community who have been affected by or participate in the criminal justice system were invited on stage to share their experiences. Throughout the evening, tributes were given in remembrance of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager fatally shot by a neighborhood watch coordinator in Florida. The following day, more than 300 people attended panels and workshops focused on a myriad of criminal justice issues including overpopulation in prison. The day began with a panel of the formerly incarcerated individuals talking about their lives and how they became leaders for change. One panelist, Tina Reynolds, shared how she had been shackled to a bed while she was giving birth to her son. She now leads WORTH, an organization of formerly incarcerated women who have successfully advocated for changes to New York state laws such as banning the use of shackles on incarcerated women during childbirth. 
 
A panel of children of incarcerated parents shared their experiences along with panelist Senator Montgomery, who discussed the important role young people have played in informing her about the needs of youth with incarcerated parents.  The senator reviewed the three bills she introduced in the New York State Senate named for three of the young people who educated her on parental incarceration issues.
 
A total of 19 workshops were held including Aging Behind Bars, Supermaxes and Solitary Confinement, Stop and Frisk, Drug Law: Policy & Reform, How Do We DE-carcerate, Role of Education Inside Prison, and many more. Workshop presenters included faculty from Columbia and other schools; leaders of major organizations and institutions committed to serving those most affected by the criminal justice system; activists and the formerly incarcerated, many of whom are now teaching and working for change.
 
The event ended with a concert featuring the IMPACT Repertory Theatre, which works with young people, poet Bryonn Bain and other performers of spoken word and music.  IMPACT co-producers Voza Rivers and Jamal Joseph, chair of the Film Department at Columbia’s School of the Arts, produced the event.
 
The strong desire of students to learn about one of the major social crises in the United States, a nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, accounted for the success of the conference.  Moral and social issues related to mass incarceration such as overincarceration, lengthy sentences, and the criminalization of people and communities based on race, lie at the intersection of a number of disciplines including social work, psychology, economics, history, health, law, literature, the arts and education. The conference brought together members of the academic community, the formerly incarcerated, community organizers and activists, and service providers in a dynamic atmosphere. It was initiated by the student-led Criminal Justice Caucus (CJC) in partnership with the Criminal Justice Initiative: Supporting Children, Families and Communities, both based at the School of Social Work. 
 
Last year the Criminal Justice Caucus held a very successful skills-based event. Due to the interest and perceived need for further education and action, the CJC and the Criminal Justice Initiative worked together this year to plan a major conference. The goals of this year’s conference thus were to establish a collaborative environment in which to network and strategize about criminal justice-related issues as well as enhance awareness and knowledge of systemic issues related to the criminal justice and prison systems.
 
The Criminal Justice Initiative was founded in 2009 by Director Kathy Boudin and Associate Director Cheryl Wilkins. It is part of the Social Intervention Group (SIG). “When we came to the School of Social Work, there was no student criminal justice caucus. But we know that change is often initiated by students and one of our first goals was to work with students to create a criminal justice caucus,” said Wilkins. “This conference is clear evidence of the key role that students can and do play in effecting change.” Boudin and Wilkins have deep roots within the broader community of activists and professionals and these relationships were critical in bringing the large community participation into the conference.
 
Removing the Bars is an example of the continuing collaboration between the CJC and the Criminal Justice Initiative, which continue to work to involve students and faculty at the School of Social Work and throughout the University in thinking about critical issues in the area of criminal justice and in building a university-community partnership. 
Under the leadership of co-chairs Ronin A. Davis and Natasha Orilus and graduating representative Stephanie Stroh, students in the Criminal Justice Caucus hosted a variety of events open to all who are interested in or affected by these issues.  The events held to date include “Fathering From Prison, Why Mass Incarceration Matters to Social Workers,” and “No One Wants to Work With Me: Working with ‘Difficult’ Populations.”  The Criminal Justice Initiative is looking ahead to creating university-wide interdisciplinary initiatives and continuing its community projects including working with youth of incarcerated parents through the Teen College Dreams program.
 
The work for change continues.

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