By Elise Schoening
While people like to think of the United States as one of the most progressive and free countries in the world, it is indisputable that the great nation has its fair share of flaws. If the past year has taught people anything, it’s that the U.S. continues to struggle with systematic racism, police brutality, gender inequality and healthcare policies. What hasn’t made the news, however, is the growing issue of mass incarceration.
It’s ironic that people so often refer to the United States as the land of the free when the country, in fact, has the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to Amnesty International, Americans make up roughly 5 percent of the world’s population. Yet, the U.S. contributes almost a quarter of the total amount of prisoners worldwide.
A small group of students at the College is working to raise awareness about mass incarceration and start a dialogue on what the college community can do to make a difference. Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) may be a new organization to the College, but it is already making waves and garnering a strong following on campus.
“This club gives students the opportunity to voice their opinions and make a difference in our prison system,” said Julia McKinnies, a junior special education major and the membership chair for SPEAR.
The College’s close proximity to Trenton offers a rare opportunity for its students to volunteer at local prisons and witness firsthand how the prison system is failing society as a whole. Students may already be aware of the Prison Teaching and Outreach Program coordinated by the Bonner Institute on campus. SPEAR, however, not only offers tutoring services to local prisons, but also focuses on bringing to light the shortcomings of the prison system and advocating for prison reform.
“I was astounded by the injustice of it,” senior psychology major and SPEAR President Serena Wasserman said. “(I) felt that this campus needed something beyond tutoring to bring awareness to the greater social issues that landed the people we tutor in jail.”
SPEAR is a student-run organization, modeled after a similar club that started at Princeton University in 2013 under the same name. The original Princeton chapter grew to be quite successful and inspired senior English major Liz Wimberg to replicate the SPEAR program here at the College that same year. At the time, however, Wimberg was unable to garner enough interest and support from the college community and the group eventually fell apart — but not for long.
Last year, Wasserman decided to revive and revamp the organization, which was approved by Student Government for official recognition on campus earlier this semester. Since then, Wasserman and the other members of the newly reformed organization have worked hard to engage the student community and increase membership.
Wasserman currently heads the prison reform group with Wimberg serving at her side as the research and advocacy chair. Both are proud of the overwhelmingly positive response that the organization has received from the College community thus far.
The purpose of the organization is two-fold, explained Wasserman: they hope to raise awareness for the various issues involving the American criminal justice system and to inspire their fellow classmates to join them in advocating for reform.
“We have not started tutoring yet, but tutoring is actually not the main focus of the club,” Wasserman said.
Instead, the group primarily focuses on advocacy and awareness. In particular, the organization works to highlight racial bias within the justice system and the overuse of solitary confinement in place of rehabilitative methods.
While it is easy to write off the members of our society who have or are currently serving jail time, the student members of SPEAR recognize that there is a larger issue at play in the American justice system and are working to give incarcerated citizens a second chance. They also hope to change how their fellow classmates view prisoners and to show that the prison system unfairly targets minorities, as well as people from low-income backgrounds.
Wasserman explained that her own viewpoint of the prison system completely changed when she began tutoring inmates through the College’s Bonner Program.
“Once I started tutoring, I realized that most if not all of the people I worked with grew up with astounding disadvantages,” Wasserman said. “They were poor, grew up in crime-ridden neighborhoods, had a poor quality of education and they were almost entirely black and Hispanic. It struck me as being entirely unfair that our society gave them so few resources to help them get ahead, and yet we were so quick to jail them when they fell behind.”
Wasserman was not alone. Many of the current members of SPEAR cited their community service at local prisons as the driving force behind their passion for the cause. As such, they encouraged other students to carve some time out of their busy schedules to volunteer in the local community and involve themselves in SPEAR.
“Particularly here at TCNJ, we represent a privileged group. Somehow, we each made it to college,” Wimberg said. “Perhaps it is our responsibility then to recognize that privilege and use it to aid others in similar pursuits.”
So far, SPEAR has hosted two forums on campus aimed at increasing general awareness of mass incarceration in the U.S. In the future, it hopes to hold more awareness events and to showcase documentaries detailing the untold stories of prison life.
Wasserman encourages any students interested in learning more to attend SPEAR’s monthly meetings and to sign up for the prison tutoring program, which will begin in the coming months. She challenges people to see past the closed minded view that inmates are nothing more than second class citizens incapable of redeeming themselves.
“I believe that prisons are full of people, just like you and me, who have made mistakes,” Wasserman said. “By slapping them with the label of ‘criminal,’ we have stripped them of their humanity and hindered their successful reentry into society. SPEAR is here to give them their humanity back.”