On Thursday, February 14, Prison Reform and Rehabilitation: 46th Annual History Conference dove into the history and current state of criminalization, punishment and rehabilitation in prisons.
When the Department of History was exploring topics for this year’s 46th Annual History Conference, it was important that it bring diversity and social justice to the classroom. With prison reform at the front line of social justice conversations, it was thought a fitting topic.
On Thursday, February 14, Prison Reform and Rehabilitation: 46th Annual History Conference dove into the history and current state of criminalization, punishment and rehabilitation in prisons. Held in Alumnae Hall, the keynote speaker was CUNY law professor Steven Zeidman, J.D., who has “devoted his brilliant career to this social justice effort,” according to Cristina Zaccarini, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Adelphi.
This year’s conference was sponsored by the Department of History, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Political Science, the Center for African, Black and Caribbean Studies, the Department of Criminal Justice, the Collaboration Project, and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
Stories from the social justice front lines
“I’m going to tell you two stories that inspire my research,” Zeidman began. “The first story is about Jack. Jack had a rough tumble with New York.”
Jack was arrested at age 14 for stealing a car. He’d been in and out of foster care and jail. “His larger problem is that he’s a heroin addict,” Zeidman continued. At 31 years old, Jack robbed a store with a few accomplices. When a cop pulled them over, Jack accidentally shot and killed the officer. He was sentenced to 25 years to life.
Zeidman’s second story was about a woman named Judy. “Judy had a good upbringing. She wasn’t a kid but was in her 30s and was a radical protester. She protested for Vietnam and racial equality,” said Zeidman. She joined a group of militants who were planning a robbery. It was Judy’s job to follow them. After killing two police officers, the robbers joined Judy in her car and crashed while trying to flee. She was sentenced to 75 years to life and is the longest-serving woman in New York state.
“American sentences are longer than any other country. In other countries, it’s 20 years maximum. In New York, rather than a 20-year maximum, there’s a 20-year minimum,” Zeidman said. “We have to ask ourselves serious questions. How long should someone go to jail for violent crimes?”
In summer 2015, Judy’s case was brought to Zeidman’s attention through an email blast from lawyers who wanted to reduce her sentence. Zeidman agreed to meet with her. “Judy had a remarkable record of achievement in her four decades in prison. Even the superintendent of the prison wanted her out. But the appeals couldn’t be used. There was nowhere to go,” he said. So Zeidman tried to get Judy clemency, a pardon and sentencing commutation from the governor. Instead of granting Judy clemency, the governor reduced her sentence to 36 years so she could talk to parole. After parole examined her sentence, they denied her parole.
“The parole system is opaque,” said Zeidman. He emphasized that in most cases, even when prisoners are on good behavior, parole will still say no. “If [parole officers] say no to parole [they] will keep [their] job, but there have been times when parole officers have been let go because the governor didn’t agree with their decision.”
Zeidman argued that parole needs to change for prison to be reformed and for people like Jack and Judy, who’ve displayed good behavior, to have another chance to better society.
The history of crime and punishment
After Zeidman’s presentation, Adelphi Associate Professor Edward Reno, Ph.D., examined the history of criminal punishment. Specifically focusing on the Middle Ages, Dr. Reno explained how the past of criminalization affects the prison system today.
Following Dr. Reno was co-founder of the All Women’s Progress Party, Mia Brett. “Women are the fastest-growing people in criminalization,” she said. “Women go to jail longer for killing partners than men. Women are sentenced 15-plus years while men are usually sentenced two to six years. Sentences are longer even when the partner is abusive.”
Brett went over the history of criminalization for women. Flogging was a punishment for women and, when the deaths increased, specifically for pregnant women, things began to change. She highlighted that punishment for women of color was even more severe than punishment for white women.
A first-person perspective
The last speaker of the conference was Sandy Ramirez, who shared his story about being incarcerated. Ramirez’s dad was a veteran whose heroin addiction led him to prison. His uncle ended up in prison as well, where he committed suicide.
“I started smoking weed and turned to other drugs. I turned to the street life instead of other opportunities that I had. In 1991, I thought I could commit a crime and get away with it—a robbery. I fatally shot someone and someone died. I was sentenced to 22 years to life,” he said.
After years of moving around to different facilities, Ramirez decided to turn his life around. He stopped using drugs and dedicated his time to enhancing the community and reforming parole policies.
“For me, because of my background, it’s always been about giving back,” he said. “We as educators need to show that we care enough to help so that [students] become a better part of society.”
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