Student advocates at Princeton launch prison reform conference | NJ.com
PRINCETON — Students at Princeton University have mentored inmates at New Jersey correctional facilities and worked to advocate prison reform throughout the state.
This weekend they are launching their first conference on prison reform.
“This is the biggest civil rights issue that I can think of at this time, and we want to give students the tools to advocate and to understand the different avenues for advocacy,” said Princeton senior Shaina Watrous.
Watrous is a founder of Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR), which today and Saturday is bringing students, academics and activists together for a conference titled “Building A New Criminal Justice System: Mobilizing Students for Reform.”
“The goal is to establish a network of students and organizations on the East Coast aiming for the same mission of criminal justice reform based on common sense approaches,” said Princeton junior Brett Diehl, the president of SPEAR. “We think there is fertile ground for organizations to have policy reform acting towards attainable goals, rather than proposing a more radical mission.”
According to Watrous, the conference was created with the goal of engaging students at other schools to build a strong student movement that can effect change. SPEAR mainly focuses on prison reform in New Jersey and Watrous hopes that conference participants will mobilize students at their own colleges and in their own region.
“We wanted more students making noise about this kind of thing. There’s a long tradition of effective student advocacy in America’s history,” Watrous said.
SPEAR was founded in 2012 with the twofold mission of mobilizing students to take action towards prison reform and expanding prison education programs. Many SPEAR students are involved with the Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program at Princeton, a prison education program that sends student tutors to state prisons to prepare inmates for the GED test. The SPEAR leadership anticipates that this conference will help to establish Petey Greene programs in other universities.
“College students are uniquely prepared because the material is fresh for them and they have quite a passion for this. It’s a volunteering opportunity that is attractive to a lot of students and also allows them to see the world inside of incarcerated facilities that is not usually seen,” Diehl said.
The conference presenters represent a diverse array of interests and backgrounds. Formerly incarcerated persons will present alongside lobbyists, government officials, photographers, and filmmakers. The roster of speakers includes prominent figures such as Jim McGreevy, the former governor of New Jersey, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, and Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project.
Programming includes keynote events and film screenings intended for a more general audience, as well as panel discussions that delve into specific topics, such as academic research on incarceration and alternative approaches for prison reform. Workshops will provide an intimate space for students and professionals to interact and exchange ideas. With names like “How to Make Your Voice Heard”, the workshops focus on prison education, prisoner re-entry programs, and prison advocacy.
However, while the conference organizers intend to promote advocacy, they hope that the conference will also result in increased action.
“Many of the issues regarding incarceration are marginalized. We’re trying to raise awareness, but also to create action-based programs,” said sophomore Hetty Lee, the chair of SPEAR’s events committee.