Professors, formerly incarcerated individuals, lawyers, and students crowded together in the Barker Center for several hours Friday afternoon for “Belonging: The Challenges of Reentry,” a conference dedicated to discussing the experiences of individuals who reenter society after serving time in prison.
Three members of the Philosophy Department — Ph.D. candidatese Darien Pollock and Diana Acosta Navas and Bréond Durr, Ph.D. candidate in African and African American Studies — worked together to organize the conference. The Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, and the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History also sponsored the event.
Pollock, one of the conference’s co-organizers, cited the “need to tell a nuanced aspect of the phenomenon of mass incarceration” as one of the reasons to hold the gathering. Pollock said that, while American society and academics sometimes openly discuss sentencing and prison experience, he hears much less conversation about reentry.
University Professor Danielle S. Allen, who gave opening remarks at the conference, said it is vital to canvass the topic of reentry in order to accomplish criminal justice reform.
“The worse the experience [in prison], the less likely the prospect of reentry,” Allen said. “So, at the end of the day, the sentencing conversation and the re-entry conversation are the same conversations.”
The conference comprised two panels, both of which featured speakers who had served time in prison as well as a number of professors. Pollock said the organizers wanted to hear both from former prisoners who had directly experienced reentry and from academics who are addressing incarceration and similar themes in their research.
Panelist Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University, spoke about the economic and social difficulties individuals face when reintegrating into society. She said it can be especially hard to find a job.
“The structure that exists is one that is deliberately exclusive, it’s exclusionary,” Perry said. “The problem of reentry so often is constructed as a problem of the deficiency of those who are reentering, when in fact is is a structural deficiency.”
Panelist Angel Sanchez said he agreed with Perry. Sanchez said he “grew up in Florida’s prison system” after being tried and convicted as an adult at age 14 for attempted murder and armed robbery in gang-related activity. Sanchez, now a law student at the University of Miami, said the road from prison to law school was nearly impossible to traverse.
“I was 28 when I got out of prison, going on 17 emotionally,” Sanchez said in an interview with The Crimson after the panel discussion.
Sanchez said formerly incarcerated individuals face a challenging decision upon reentering society: whether to return home or to try to begin anew elsewhere.
“When I got out, I knew that I couldn’t go back to the same people, places and things, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” Sanchez said. “[We] have to choose between going back to a bad environment or having no environment to go to, so the answer is obviously easy. Go back to the bad environment.”
Sanchez chose to start fresh. From a homeless shelter in Orlando, he made his way to community college, where he earned a 4.0 GPA. His prior conviction, though, followed him to college, where he was removed from the honor society when other members learned of his felony. After being rejected by 21 out of 23 law programs to which he applied, Sanchez enrolled at the law school at the University of Miami and has since served as a judicial intern.
“I literally went from a defendant in that courtroom to a judicial intern walking in to that courtroom. When they said all rise, I was next to the judge in her robe, myself in a suit in a courtroom where I once had to walk in with an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs,” he said.
Pollock, who gained inspiration for the conference from the experiences of his uncle who served time in prison, said he thought the conference was successful and went “better than [he] hoped.”
“I think this conference was really what it said on the flier. It was a belonging type of conference,” Pollock said.
Correction: Oct. 4, 2018
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Bréond Durr. It has been updated.
— Staff writer Annie C. Doris can be reached at email@example.com.