Scene @ CCSU: Conference put spotlight on criminal justice reform

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By Abigail Minor

Originally published in the New Britain Herald/Bristol Press.

“We have reached a plateau on how far we can actually get on reforming the criminal justice system.”

Walter Fortson’s condemning words reverberated throughout Welte Auditorium on a frigid January afternoon, reaching hundreds of legislators, community advocates, correctional officers, wardens, clergy, and researchers – people who have dedicated their lives to the criminal justice system. Though seemingly discouraging, Fortson’s keynote speech called attention to the purpose of this year’s Building Bridges conference hosted by the Institute of Municipal and Regional Policy at CCSU: refocusing the mission of a “Second Chance Society” into one that asserts first and foremost the humanity of those affected by reform efforts. Fortson, a formerly incarcerated spokesperson for the Petey Greene Program, urged listeners that to move past this plateau, we need to talk about race.

“Racism is not a question of attitude, but a question of power,” said Fortson. “1 in 3 Black men can expect to go to prison as opposed to 1 in 6 Latino men and 1 in 17 white men.”

These statistics were mirrored in the breakout session hosted by the CT Racial Profiling Prohibition Project (CTRP3). Their research revealed that although finding contraband is twice as likely when searching white drivers, Black and Hispanic drivers are searched three times as often.

The conference turned statistics into voices by amplifying the stories of formerly incarcerated individuals. In addition to features such as a performance by the Judy Dworin Performance Project and a panel moderated by author Wally Lamb including Byron Bigelow, Cynthia Clooney, Daryl McGraw, and Johnny Rivera, audience members also had the opportunity to participate. Duane Pierre, Executive Director of ParaDYM, Inc, recorded conference attendees interviewing each other about the events of the day in the style of NPR’s Story Corps, the footage of which will be available on IMRP’s website shortly.

“We made decisions; we’re not bad people.” Clooney’s final words of the panel summarized the need for mental health services, mentor programs, and re-entry assistance.

Other topics covered by the conference included resources for juvenile offenders, the immense success of methadone treatment programs in the context of rehabilitation, the trauma-aware use of dialectical behavioral therapy with men in prison, and a conversation about the role of reconciliation in the faith community’s approach to criminal justice outreach. Each session carried one central theme: people in prison are people, and the most effective programs treat them with empathy.

“Empathy means rehabilitation begins on your first day of incarceration, not 90 days before your release,” said Fortson. “We need to move from our country’s insatiable need for punishment to truth and reconciliation.”

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