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Author: Karlyn Schumacher

Mia Birdsong’s TED Talk: Connections to Just Mercy

As a book concerned with the corruption and problems plaguing America’s criminal justice system, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy also discusses the contexts surrounding this corruption. Mia Birdsong’s TED Talk from May 2015, “The Story We Tell About Poverty Isn’t True,” has important connections to Just Mercy.

Mia Birdsong has been an active advocate for social justice and liberation for the past thirty years, and she has held leadership positions in organizations focused on helping families living in poverty, all of which are listed in her biography on Especially relevant to Just Mercy, Birdsong has also been involved with the prison abolition organization Critical Resistance.

Birdsong’s TED talk focuses on the marginalization of the poor in America, especially in terms of how people view the poor and the causes of their poverty. “I have worked with and learned from people just like them for more than twenty years. I have organized against the prison system, which impacts poor folks, especially black, indigenous, and Latino folks, at an alarming rate,” says Birdsong.

Mia Birdsong giving her TED Talk. Photo from

The overarching message of Birdsong’s TED talk is that the narrative surrounding poverty simply isn’t true. “Most people work hard. Hard work is the common denominator in this equation,” Birdsong says, “and I’m tired of the story we tell that hard work leads to success. Because that story allows those of us who make it to believe we deserve it, and by implication, those who don’t make it don’t deserve it.”

One of Birdsong’s largest issues with this story about poverty is that it disregards the drive and determination of the poor. “What if we recognized that what’s working is the people, and what’s broken is our approach? What if we realized that the experts we are looking for, the experts we need to follow, are poor people themselves?” she argues. “Marginalized communities are full of smart, talented people hustling and working and innovating, just like our most revered and most rewarded CEOs.”

Birdsong’s call for a change in the narrative Americans tell about poverty echoes Stevenson’s call for a more compassionate and just view of inmates, not to mention more humane treatment. “Everywhere I go, I see people who are broke but not broken. I see people who are struggling to realize their good ideas so that they can create a better life for themselves, their families, their communities,” says Birdsong. Stevenson makes a similar argument in Just Mercy, arguing that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

To watch Mia Birdsong’s TED talk, click here.

UW-Madison Welcomes ‘Go Big Read’ Author Bryan Stevenson on October 26th

This press release was written by Jenny Price from University Communications.

Go Big Read is bigger than ever in its seventh year.

The selection of Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” prompted record participation in UW-Madison’s common-reading program. More than 170 courses are using the book this semester, in disciplines including business, education, English, history, law, nursing, political science and social work.

The UW-Madison community will hear from Stevenson on Monday, Oct. 26, when he visits campus to meet with students and give a public talk as the centerpiece of Go Big Read.

The event, hosted by Chancellor Rebecca Blank, begins at 7 p.m. in Varsity Hall at Union South and will be streamed live and captioned on the Go Big Read website. Stevenson’s talk will be followed by a question-and-answer session, moderated by Everett Mitchell, director of community relations for the UW–Madison Office of University Relations.

During his visit to the UW campus, Stevenson will also meet with students from First-Year Interest Groups, the College of Letters & Science Honors Program and the law school.


Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy” and founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, will speak at UW-Madison on Monday, Oct. 26, in Varsity Hall at Union South.

Stevenson co-founded the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Alabama, three decades ago. Since then, he has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court five times and played a role in landmark court cases that have transformed how the criminal justice system deals with violent youths. He has helped secure relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, advocated for poor people and developed community-based reform litigation aimed at improving the administration of criminal justice.

Last year, President Barack Obama appointed Stevenson to a task force established to recommend police practices that can improve relations between officers and the people they serve, particularly in minority communities. Stevenson is on the faculty at New York University School of Law and the winner of a MacArthur “genius grant.”

More than 5,000 new UW students received copies of “Just Mercy” during Wisconsin Welcome in early September. This month, every member of the UW-Madison Police Department is reading the book. During their orientation week at the start of the semester, first-year law students also received copies to read and discuss before participating in a community-service day.

Other upcoming Go Big Read events:

— “Just Mercy” is being featured on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Chapter a Day series, airing at 12:30 p.m. (and repeating at 11 p.m.) from Monday, Oct. 19-Friday, Nov. 6.

— Thursday, Oct. 22, noon-1:30 p.m.: Daniel Meyer, a professor of social work, will lead a faculty and staff panel discussion of key issues raised by “Just Mercy” from a Christian perspective during a luncheon at the University Club.

— Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 5-7: free conference at the Pyle Center, “A New Politics of Human Rights: Crossing Disciplines, Regions, and Issues.”

— Tuesday, Nov. 10, 5-9 p.m.: Reform Now Programs and Resource Fair, an evening of social justice at the Madison Public Library, 201 W. Mifflin St., includes a screening of “Reform Now,” a film about Wisconsin citizens who are challenging solitary confinement.

Read the original press release here.

Harvard Debate Team Loses to Inmates: The Success of the Bard Prison Initiative

The Harvard University debate team, one of the most highly ranked debate teams in the world, was recently beaten by the Eastern New York Correctional debate team. According to an article from BBC News, the inmates’ debate team challenged Harvard’s team in September of 2015 to debate at the maximum security prison.

The Eastern New York Correctional Facility is one of the prisons in New York that the Bard College Prison Initiative operates in and offers courses at, and inmates taking courses from Bard formed a debate team. Since forming in 2013, the Eastern New York Correctional debate team has beaten other formidable debate teams, such as the University of Vermont and the US Military Academy at West Point’s teams. According to the BBC News article, the inmates and the US Military Academy at West Point’s teams “have established an annual match and a budding rivalry.”

Beating Harvard’s debate team, however, speaks to the determination, hard work, and rhetorical skills of the Eastern New York Correctional debate team, as Harvard’s team has won both the national and world debate championships in the past.

The Harvard debate team took the loss well, posting on their Facebook page that “there are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend…and we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event.”

As Bryan Stevenson says in Just Mercy, “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” The Eastern New York Correctional debate team’s victory over Harvard demonstrates the success of the Bard Prison Initiative and providing opportunities for inmates to pursue educational goals while in prison.

To read the BBC News article about the Eastern New York Correctional debate team’s success, click here.

Madison Public Library Book Discussions of Just Mercy

Several branches of the Madison Public Library are hosting book discussions of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy in the next few months. Stevenson’s book has received much publicity and acclaim since its publication, and it has sparked discussions about social justice and activism at UW-Madison and in the wider Madison community.

Copies of the book are available in hardcover, as a book on CD, and electronically via Overdrive as an ebook or as an mp3 audiobook (which you can access from your iPad, iPhone, iPod, Android phone, tablet, etc.) via the Overdrive app.

If you are interested in attending one of these discussions, the schedule is as follows:

  • Wednesday, October 14th, at 7:00 pm at the Sequoya Library branch
  • Saturday, October 17th, at 1:30 pm at the Goodman South Madison Library branch
  • Wednesday, October 21, at 7:00 pm at the Central Library branch
  • Thursday, November 5, at 6:30 pm at the Lakeview Library branch
  • Thursday, November 12, at 12:00 pm at the Lakeview Library branch
  • Tuesday, November 24, at 7:00 pm at the Pinney Library branch
  • Wednesday, December 2, at 6:30 pm at the Meadowbridge Library branch
  • Wednesday, January 20, at 7:00 pm at the Alicia Ashman Library branch

To visit the Madison Public Library’s web page about these discussions and other events, click here.

To read the list of suggested discussion questions from MPL and Go Big Read, click here.



Innocent Man Released From Prison After 20 Years, Thanks to EJI

A recent article from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) discusses yesterday’s release of Beniah Dandridge, the fourth man to be released from prison in Alabama in 2015 after being wrongly condemned. EJI took on Dandridge’s case in November of 2014, after Dandridge had been in prison since 1995 for a murder that he did not commit.


Beniah Dandridge with his legal team on the day of his release from prison, October 1st, 2015. Photo from

The only evidence presented against Dandridge was a set of bloody fingerprints at the crime scene – that the Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI) claimed matched Dandridge’s fingerprints – and the falsified testimony of a jailhouse informant, who later said that he gave a falsified testimony in exchange for a reduced sentence. Dandridge testified that he was innocent and presented evidence that he was not present at the scene of the crime when it was committed, but he was convicted of intentional murder nonetheless. Dandridge was sentenced to life in prison and had been denied for parole twice by the time that EJI picked up his case.

Independent forensic examiners were able to prove Dandridge’s innocence by exposing the faulty methods ABI had used to compare the fingerprints and, instead, matched them to the murder victim’s son. As a result of this evidence and EJI’s involvement in the case, the judge demanded that Dandridge be released from prison, and Dandridge left prison yesterday afternoon as a free man.

To read the article by EJI, click here.

To read about the release of Montez Spradley, click here.

To read about the release of William Ziegler, click here.

To read about the release of Anthony Ray Hinton, click here.

Liberal Arts in Prison: Bard Prison Initiative

On September 17, 2015, a panel discussion between Bard Prison Initiative founder and director Max Kenner and three graduates of BPI reflected on the outcomes of the program over the past ten years.

The Bard Prison Initiative is a program that allows incarcerated men and women to pursue liberal arts degrees from Bard College while in prison. Founded by Max Kenner while he was a student at Bard in 1999, BPI became one of the College’s official academic programs in 2001. BPI receives an overwhelming majority of its funding from private support and donors.

BPI consists of six satellite campuses across New York State, and each semester over sixty courses are offered to the roughly 300 students enrolled in the program. As of 2015, BPI has granted almost 350 degrees to students in the program. Admission to the program is extremely competitive, and applicants must hold a high school diploma to apply; many applicants apply multiple times before being granted a spot in the program.

Woodbourne Correctional Facility inmates and Bard College students during class Story: The Bard Prison Initiative Former inmate Carlos Rosario, 35-year-old husband and father of four, was released from Woodbourne Correctional Facility after serving more than 12 years for armed robbery. Rosado is one of the students participating in the Bard Prison Initiative, a privately-funded program that offers inmates at five New York State prisons the opportunity to work toward a college degree from Bard College. The program, which is the brainchild of alumnus Max Kenner, is competitive, accepting only 15 new students at each facility every other year. Carlos Rosario received the Bachelor of Arts degree in social studies from the prestigious College Saturday, just a few days after his release. He had been working on it for the last six years. His senior thesis was titled "The Diet of Punishment: Prison Food and Penal Practice in the Post-Rehabilitative Era," Rosado is credited with developing a garden in one of the few green spaces inside the otherwise cement-heavy prison. In the two years since the garden's foundation, it has provided some of the only access the prison's 800 inmates have to fresh vegetables and fruit. Rosario now works for a recycling company in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Photo © Stefan Falke

A Bard Prison Initiative class at one of the program’s six campuses. Photo © Stefan Falke

According to the program’s website, graduates of the program have “consistently succeeded after release from prison,” with some working their way up to management positions in organizations, while others “have continued their educations, earning scholarships and working toward additional academic and professional degrees.”

Not only does BPI provide its participants and graduates with more opportunities and a chance to pursue a college degree, but it also is a cost-effective, money-saving venture. BPI’s website states that “among formally incarcerated Bard students, less than 2% have returned to prison. The estimated cost per person, per year of the BPI program is a small fraction of the price of continuing incarceration. It saves tax payers money, while increasing public safety.” Lower rates of recidivism means overall lower costs of the criminal justice system.

The three graduates of BPI in the panel discussion all attested to the changes in their lives after graduating from BPI and being released from prison. BPI’s website states that one of the program’s largest benefits is that upon “returning home with confidence and hope, participants are able to find and hold satisfying jobs in a range of fields.”

To watch the panel discussion, click here.

To visit Bard Prison Initiative’s website, click here.

To watch a video commemorating BPI’s ten year anniversary in 2011, click here.


Students and Inmates Gain New Perspectives in Inside-Out Program

A recent NPR article describes the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which over one hundred colleges and universities worldwide will participate in this year.

Founded in 1997, the Inside-Out Program consists of traditional college students – “outside students” – taking semester-long courses alongside inmates – “inside students.” The Inside-Out Program’s website lays out one of the principle purposes of the program: it “creates avenues for social change through education and civic engagement” and “opens the door for people to gain an education that emphasizes collaborative learning and problem-solving.”


An Inside-Out course in progress. Source: NPR.

The courses help create dialogue between these outside and inside students that in turn help break down traditional stereotypes and misconceptions held by and about both groups. Lori Pompa, one of the founders of the Inside-Out Program, says, “What dialogue does is it helps to make the walls between us more permeable.”

One of the inmates active in the Inside-Out Program, Paul, says that the program “humanizes people on both sides of these walls.” Paul was the inmate who suggested to Pompa that the conversations happening between visiting Temple University students and inmates continue, spurring Pompa to found the Inside-Out Program. The program’s benefits align with the push for mroe

Although Paul is serving a life-sentence, he is pursuing his master’s degree. “My mission in life now is to leave a better legacy than the one I had left when I came to prison,” says Paul, noting that the Inside-Out Program “gives you the freedom to care again. The freedom to feel again.”

To visit the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program’s website, click here.

To read the full NPR story on the Inside-Out Program, click here.

To watch and hear Lori Pompa discuss the program, click here.

Wisconsin Legislators Circulate Juvenile Justice Bill

As of today, Wisconsin Senator Jerry Petrowski, Representative Rob Hutton, and Representative Mary Czaja are circulating a bill to attempt to reduce recidivism rates among non-violent, first-time 17 year olds.

The bill would cause this type of offender to file their cases in juvenile court rather than in adult court, but excludes violent/repeat offenders who are 17.

“Wisconsin is one of only 9 states that still prosecutes all 17 year olds as adults,” says Senator  Petrowski. “Young people with adult criminal records are less likely to graduate from high school, they have difficulty finding future employment, and face barriers to higher education and military service. The kids we’re talking about are non-violent and are having their first brush with the legal system and they deserve a second chance to become responsible adults.”

Judges will still hold the ability to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to send these offenders to the juvenile or adult system under this bill.

The bill is ultimately intended to reduce crime rates in Wisconsin, reduce recidivism rates among non-violent, first time 17 year old offenders, and save taxpayers money in the long run.

To read the news release put out by the Wisconsin Legislature today, click here.

To read the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s blog post about the bill, click here.

First-Year Students Receive Copies of Just Mercy at Chancellor’s Convocation


The Class of 2019 was welcomed today at the Chancellor’s Convocation, held at the Kohl Center. This year’s theme was “Be the Change,” and those speaking at the ceremony urged the newest class of Badgers – and all other students, faculty, and staff – to become leaders in creating a more equal and fair society.

First-year students were given a copy of this year’s Go Big Read book, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, upon exiting the Kohl Center by faculty and staff.


First-year students leave the Kohl Center with their copies of Just Mercy.

The ceremony was hosted by Aaron Bird Bear, interim assistant dean for student diversity programs in the School of Education, and speakers included Chancellor Rebecca Blank, poet and student Hiwot Adilow, and Patrick J. Sims, who is the vice provost for diversity and climate and a professor of theatre and drama.


Faculty and staff giving away copies of Just Mercy as students leave the Kohl Center after Convocation.


Prepping to give away copies of Just Mercy.









Teens Tried as Adults: Wisconsin’s “Slender Man” Stabbing Case

Many of the cases Bryan Stevenson describes in Just Mercy deal with juveniles being convicted as adults, even at the ages of 13 and 14, and spending most of their adult lives in prison. The 2014 “Slender Man” stabbing case is a current example of such issues taking place here in Wisconsin. A recent ABC News article entitled “‘Slender Man’ Stabbing: Teens to Be Tried in Adult Court” by Emily Shapiro discusses the August 10 ruling to try Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier in adult court. Geyser and Weier were both 12 years old when they stabbed their friend Payton Leutner 19 times in the woods surrounding Waukesha, Wisconsin on August 31, 2014. Though Leutner suffered serious injuries, she ultimately pulled through and survived the stabbing. Geyser and Weier were arrested shortly after the crime occurred.


Image from BBC

Shapiro discusses Geyser and Weier’s fascination with “Slender Man,” a fictional character who supposedly stalks children. The two girls believed that their actions would allow them to live with Slender Man in his mansion in the woods of northern Wisconsin.
In a related article entitled “‘Slender Man’ Stabbing: Not Guilty Pleas Entered for Teens,” Shapiro reports that a Wisconsin court entered not guilty pleas for Geyser and Weier on August 21, 2015. The court did so after the defendants’ attorneys stood mute after being asked to enter pleas, which attorney Maura McMahon described as a way to object to the court’s jurisdiction – in this case, the decision that Geyser and Weier be tried as adults. Geyser and Weier are now both 13 years old, and if they are found guilty of the first-degree attempted homicide charges they face, they could receive sentences of up to 65 years in prison.

To read “‘Slender Man’ Stabbing: Teens to Be Tried in Adult Court,” click here.

To read “‘Slender Man’ Stabbing: Not Guilty Pleas Entered for Teens,” click here.