On Tuesday evening, over hot soup, breadsticks and Oreos, a small crowd of students and administration gathered in the living room of the Cultural House to discuss the failures of the U.S. prison system and the ramifications of the August 2018 prison workers’ strike.
The event, hosted by the Department of Multicultural Life (DML), was the first iteration of the newly-extended Trenzas program. The Trenzas program, originally founded in the early 2000s, is a programming initiative primarily led by DML student workers. Beginning this year, that programming will include a campus discussion series.
“We’re trying to make space for certain conversations to be had outside of classrooms,” discussion leader Lucy Beers Shenk ’19 said. “I really hope that this begins an ongoing conversation about the criminal justice system in the U.S. and how messed up it is.”
Tuesday’s conversation included a presentation from Beers Shenk, Anni Clark ’21, and Julia Romare ’19, who work together at the DML.
The presenters initiated discussion by contextualizing the 2018 prison workers’ strike – during which thousands of prisoners from at least 17 states across the country participated in work strikes, peaceful sit-ins and hunger strikes from Aug. 21 to Sept. 9.
Those dates hold a significance of their own. On Aug. 21, 1971, George Jackson, a Black Panther Party member convicted of armed robbery, was shot dead by guards during an prison escape attempt.
On Sept. 9 of that same year, nearly half of the 2,200 prisoners at Attica Prison in New York rioted and seized control of the institution – taking 39 prison guards and other employees hostage.
It was, however, a more recent event that instigated this year’s strike. On April 15, 2018, at the Lee Correctional Institute in Bishopville, South Carolina, seven inmates were killed and 22 injured in a prison riot that has been blamed on institutional security failures within the prison.
Jail Lawyers Speak (JLS) and The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) took the lead in organizing prisoners’ response.
“Seven comrades lost their lives when prison officials turned their backs on a riot they provoked,” the IWOC website reads. “We are demanding humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and the end of modern day slavery.”
The group released a detailed list of their demands before the beginning of the strikes, which students at the Cultural House took turns reading aloud and discussing in detail.
As the conversation progressed, students expressed frustration that the prisoners’ demands were met with apathy from those in power. While the demonstrations were met with significant media attention, no formal response to the strikes on behalf of the prisons involved was released.
Jessi-Alex Brandon ’20 argued that the U.S. prison system can not be overhauled until the country’s culture of racism and disdain for the incarcerated is ended.
“How do you reform something that’s already corrupt, that started with corruption?” they asked. “But I understand, you have to start somewhere.”
The group went on to discuss problems with the prison system left unaddressed by the striking prisoners – including transphobic prison policies, the school-to-prison pipeline and for-profit prisons.
“I feel like in any movement there’s things that you’re fighting for and there are things that are missing,” Clark said. “So, what does it mean to make a list of ten things that need to be done?”
As the conversation neared its close, Beers Shenk, Clark, and Romare reminded the attendees of the vast list of companies that benefit from prison labor, for which prisoners are paid an average of 20 cents per hour – including Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks and Whole Foods.
The conversation left several students engaged and hungry for change. Brandon enjoyed the opportunity to discuss important social justice issues in a non-lecture setting, but wished DML events in general saw a bigger student turnout.
“I think it’s important, but – and I don’t know if it’s the way it’s set up or just how it is – usually it’s the same people [who] attend,” they said. “I just wish that more of the student body would come to these events.
Brandon thinks the Macalester community as a whole could do better to engage in difficult conversations about important social justice issues.
“I don’t have those types of conversations unless I’m with fellow black people or people of color,” they continued. “It’s good, in a way, to be talking with people who know where I’m coming from, but it’s also disheartening that white students and white faculty members aren’t going out of their way to really critically engage in those conversations.”
Dean of Multicultural Life Marjorie Trueblood also expressed the importance of this conversation across campus.
“One of the goals of the DML is to integrate and affirm the peoples, discourses, thoughts and experiences of marginalized people into the fabric of the Macalester community, and unfortunately the prison system disproportionately impacts racially, ethnically, and socio-economically marginalized people,” Trueblood wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly.
“We need to have these conversations because one day Mac students will be the thought leaders and decision makers on issues like this.”
Milo Beyene ’19 reviewed the discussion positively, but acknowledged the need to continue the conversation outside of the limited timeframe of Tuesday’s event.
“I thought it was very well-formatted and very informative,” Beyene said. “I liked that the presentation was inclusive of all the voices present. I think there definitely needs to be an extended conversation. There were things that weren’t talked about a lot, which I think came down to timing more than anything.”
They also acknowledged the intersectionality of prisoners’ rights issues with other social justice issues prevalent on campus – most notably, the two swastikas found drawn on a library study table on Oct. 4.
“I think the culture of Mac is one rooted in activism,” Beyene said. “These issues are all connected. We’re all trying to fight against the same structures and we need to band together. It’s a scary time.”