Conference Tackles Challenges and Opportunities for Prison Reform and Reentry
More than 250 guests, including artists, activists, politicians, and formerly incarcerated individuals, attended the inaugural St. Francis College Prison Reentry, Reform and Possibilities Conference on November 14th and 15th.
This two-day conference aimed to highlight the achievements of SFC's Post-Prison Program through a series of panel discussions, while examining the moral and religious implications of reentry programs and raising awareness about the innovative programs for those currently in prison.
"This conference was actually the idea of our new President Miguel Martinez-Saenz," said Dr. Emily Horowitz, Criminal Justice Professor and Co-Director of the Post-Prison Program at SFC. "We really wanted to do conference where we could address our problem of mass incarceration, which is a huge embarrassment to this country, and look at new ways to make mass incarceration more humane and also make the reentry process more humane."
Since 2014, SFC's Post-Prison Program has enrolled 14 full-time students, giving formerly incarcerated men and women a chance to pursue higher education. Three of the students from the inaugural cohort graduated with their bachelor's degrees in 2018.
Several students attended the conference to share their incarceration and reentry experiences. A number of keynote speakers examined topics ranging from the realities of punishment while incarcerated, to the challenges of reentry after prison.
Keynote speakers included Chris Owens, Director of the Re-entry Bureau at the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office; Vaughn Mayers, Chief of Staff for the Office of Senator Kevin S. Parker; Assemblywoman Latrice Parker; and NYS Assemblyman David I. Weprin, Chair of the Corrections Committee.
The first panel discussion, moderated by Dr. John Edwards, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at SFC, explored the concept of redemption in religious thought.
Panelists included Dr. Jenny Labenz, a Jewish Studies scholar and Assistant Professor at SFC; Debbie Almontaser, a Muslim Educator and Founder of Bridging Cultures; Rev. Barbara E. Davis Executive Minister at First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan; and Joshua Stancil, a Catholic activist who was formerly incarcerated. Panelists discussed how their own religious traditions offered room for understanding and critiqued the judicial system for failing in this area.
The second panel discussion focused on the St. Francis Post Prison Program and featured a panel of current students enrolled in the program– Steuben Vega, Kevin Smith, Luis Pelaez– and Felix Colon, who graduated from St. Francis in May. The students shared their perspective on the challenges of prison, and how attending St. Francis offered them not only an education and degree, but support, mentorship, and social networks during the challenging reentry process.
The panel was moderated by Keston Jones, who was formerly incarcerated, is now pursuing a doctorate at Yeshiva University and serves as the founder of the Foundation for the Advancement and Rehabilitation of the Marginalized.
The final panel of the day, moderated by conference co-organizer Dr. Michelle Gantt (Education Supervisor of the Metropolitan Detention Center) discussed the importance of education programs within prisons. With input from Dr. Christa Mercer of Columbia University, K. Bain of Cure Violence, and Nick Franklin of the Brooklyn Public Library, panelists discussed how education programs can be transformative for incarcerated men and women.
One of the most powerful aspects of the conference was a full-size replica solitary confinement cell and virtual reality experience coordinated by Johnny Perez '18 of the National Religion Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). Doug Van Zandt of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, constructed the cell onsite in Callahan Center and offered tours of the cell, along with Felix Colon '18.
This conference was hosted in partnership with the SFC Office of the President in collaboration with Gantt of the Metropolitan Detention Center and Perez of NRCAT.
St. Francis College is committed to providing higher education to disadvantaged and first-generation college students. Learn more about SFC's Post-Prison Program at visit sfc.edu/postprison or contact Dr. Emily Horowitz at [email protected] or 718.489.5446.