Incarceration forum brings experts to Bennington College

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BENNINGTON >> On Saturday, Bennington College hosted its Fall 2015 "Incarceration in America" forum, which was headlined by keynote speaker, Dr. Marie Gottschalk.

The Incarceration in America initiative, which began in 2014, was once again organized by faculty member Annabel Davis-Groff, of the college's Center for the Advancement of Public Action. "The U.S. has less than five percent of the world's population, but nearly 25 percent of incarcerated people worldwide are in American prisons" said Davis-Groff in a previous interview with the Banner, "The majority of people currently serving sentences in the U.S. are being held for non-violent offenses, at tremendous costs — human, economic, and other — both for the individuals and society broadly. I'm grateful that many of the best minds working on this pressing concern are coming to Bennington to present and exchange ideas."

The keynote address was sandwiched between two discussion panels, "Women in Prison," and "The Agining Incarcerated Population." Panelists included Dr. Paul Adler, who oversees medical care for four county jails in Ventura, California, a county of one million people; Kathleen Culhane, who has worked extensively in community health with homeless and formerly incarcerated women since her release from California state prisons four years ago; Mujahid Farid, lead organizer for the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign; Samuel Hamilton a resident of The Fortune Society's Harlem reentry housing residence, which is known as "The Castle," who spent 32 years in prison, and now works with Housing Works' Health Home Care Management Program as a care navigator; Glenn E. Martin, founder of Just Leadership USA, an organization that aims to cut the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030 by elevating and amplifying the voice of people most impacted by crime and incarceration, and positioning them as informed, empowered reform partners; Vivian Nixon, executive director of College and Community Fellowship, which is dedicated to removing barriers in higher education for women with criminal backgrounds; Diana Ortiz, associate director at Exodus Transitional Community, Inc., a not-for-profit organization established in 1999 that works with men and women transitioning from incarceration; JoAnne Page, head of the Fortune Society; Cara Smith, chief strategist for the Cook County Sheriff's Office; and Rita Zimmer, founder and executive director of Housing+Solutions, a New York-based program that provides permanent housing for homeless women with substance abuse, mental health disabilities, or criminal justice histories.

Both panels were moderated by Martin. In the first, "Women in Prison," Culhane pointed out that that two-thirds of her corrections officers were male, and that there was a punitive ethos in women's prisons where sexualized misogyny was used as a means of control, arguing that prisons are traumatizing or damaging to anyone who enters them.

According to Zimmer, seventy-five percent of women in prison are parents. Her program's Drew House allows convicted women to stay with their children while serving their sentence in the nation's first family alternative to incarceration program. Zimmer stated that the cost of one year in Drew House, $35,000, was significantly less than the approximately $127,000 it would cost to incarcerate a mother of two and place her children in foster care.

"We are living in a carceral state," said Gottschalk in her address, ""one out of twenty-three people in the U.S are somehow captured by the state." Gottschalk, a former journalist and editor, is currently a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her latest book is "Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics."

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122. Bennington College student Kieran Najita contributed to this report.


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