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Category: Go Big Read 2015-2016: Just Mercy

Just Mercy in the Community

Monday October 12th, 200+ people attended “And Justice for All: A Community Panel Discussion” hosted by Middleton Public Library. The audience was made up of community members, including many staff from the Middleton Cross Plains Area School District. The discussion panel was made up of six members: Dan Mahoney (Dane County Sheriff), Dr. Ruben Anthony (Urban League of Greater Madison CEO), Josann Reynolds (Dane County Judge), Percy Brown (Director of Equity, Middleton Cross Plains Area School District), Chuck Foulke (Middleton Police Chief), and a Middleton High School Student Voice Union member.

Community members attending Just Mercy discussion Panel

Community members attending Just Mercy discussion panel

The panel discussion began by reading the passage in Just Mercy where Stevenson talks about his unprovoked encounter with the police outside his apartment in Atlanta (pages 39-42). The panel discussed how Stevenson’s experience relates to the Middleton area and Dane County.

The discussion also focused on kids in the community and how themes in the book may effect them.  Many shared and agreed that the first step is building stronger relationships with the police, within the community, and with your neighbors.

To find out about upcoming Just Mercy discussions, visit our events page here.


Business Students Create Just Mercy Themed Art at Wheelhouse Studios


Today and tomorrow a business class will be meeting in Wheelhouse Studios to create art-based learning projects focused on the book Just Mercy. Wheelhouse Studios is an open art studio located in Memorial Union. Its website describes the art studio as “three versatile workspaces, flexible studio designs, drop-in art opportunities, and classes for enthusiasts and dabblers alike, it’s easy to sign up and get involved.”

Four sections of a 120 student class will go to Wheelhouse Studios to create screen printed posters that they co-designed in small groups around themes of leadership, mental health, and humility from Just Mercy. Each student will get a copy of their poster and a set of the student created posters will be on display to the public at Grainger Hall sometime in upcoming weeks. Two examples of the student posters can be seen on the right side of this post.

Crime&PunishmentPosterWhile at Wheelhouse Studios students will also construct handmade, saddle-stitched notebooks and journals that will be donated to Wisconsin Books for Prisoners and the LGBT Books to Prisoners Project.

For more information about Wheelhouse Studios click here.

For more information about Wisconsin Books for Prisoners click here.

For more information about LGBT Books to Prisoners Project click 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.

New Film, Human, features Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is featured in the recent film, Human. The film was created by French photographer, journalist, and environmentalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand. The film is a collection of stories from individuals from around the world about their human experience.  Bryan Stevenson is one of those individuals.

In his segment, Stevenson talks about race, poverty, and the death penalty. He speaks poignantly about his experience with people on death row and how that experience has taught him that no one is beyond redemption. He says: “I’ve met a lot of people who may never get out, they may always be a threat to themselves or others, but I’ve never met anyone I could say was beyond redemption, beyond hope, beyond the possibility of restoration.”

Watch his segment below.

The film was released for free and can be watched on YouTube by clicking here.

To learn more about the film 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.


Death Penalty Sentences Concentrated to a Few Counties in the U.S.

twopercent1According the the Death Penalty Information Center’s recent report, “Death Sentences Drop in Three High-Use Counties As Prosecutors Change,” as of 2013, 56 percent of death sentences were given out in only 2 percent of U.S. counties. However, due to recent District Attorney changes in three counties that were included in that 2 percent, the number of annual death sentences is noticeably declining.  The three counties highlighted in this report from DPIC are Harris County, Texas, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, and Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania. Since the DA changes, Harris County went from 12 death sentences per year to just 1 per year. Oklahoma County went from more than 2 death sentences a year to only 3 in the past 6 years. And Philadelphia County went from more than 9 death sentences per year to only 3 in the past 5 years. The report stresses the impact that individual prosecutors have had in these “high-use” counties.

Watch the 2013 video, created by the DPIC, below explaining how 2 percent of counties produce the majority of death sentences in the U.S.

To read “Death Sentences Drop in Three High-Use Counties As Prosecutors Change” click here.

To read “Why Three Counties That Loved the Death Penalty Have Almost Stopped Pursuing It,” from the Marshall Project, click here.

To read the 2013 executive summary of the report “How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Cases at Enormous Cost to All” click here.

Just Mercy Reaches Local Police

Madison’s local CBS affiliate, WISC-TV3, posted a video editorial about UW-Madison’s Go Big Read program. Editorial director, Neil Heinen, had this to say about the selection of Just Mercy as the 2015-2016 common read: “It was a wise choice for the book program. It was a wiser choice for Chiefs Riseling and Koval to take advantage of the Big Read in their departments. And yes, it is another example of the Wisconsin Idea.”

Watch the editorial below.

For a transcript of the editorial 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.