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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tag: Go Big Read

A Look at UW’s Current Go Big Read Book, “Just Mercy,” from the Selection of the Book to the Author’s Recent Talk on UW’s Campus

This post was written by UW-Madison Journalism student, Lisa Speckhard.

Since 2009, UW-Madison has hosted Go Big Read, its common book program. A book is chosen to be widely read and discussed throughout campus and the community. According to the program’s website, the goal is to “engage students, faculty, staff and the entire community in a vibrant, academically driven experience.”

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This year, the Go Big Read selection committee was looking for a book about inequality in America. They noted this was a pressing local issue, as could be seen in the Madison reactions to grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and New York, as well as the local shooting of Tony Robinson.

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Over 200 entries were submitted by students, faculty, staff, and members of the community. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank chose “Just Mercy.”

Blank stated, “Bryan Stevenson’s book raises tough and important questions about inequalities in the criminal justice system … Now is a particularly good time to hold these conversations, as UW-Madison students, staff and faculty grapple with the ways in which these larger national issues affect our own community.”

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The New York Times review of the book called it “a call to action for all that remains to be done.”

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Bryan Stevenson is a the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a professor of law at New York University School of Law. In 2015, he was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People. You can learn more about his journey here:

UW-Madison and the greater Madison area offered many ways to interact with the book. UW distributed over 5,000 copies to new students, used the book in over 170 class sections, assigned it as reading for all first year law students, held a faculty and staff panel discussion on the issues raised in the book, and is hosting a human rights conference at the Pyle Center next week. Later in November, Central Library will provide a life-size model of a solitary confinement cell for visitors to experience.

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Students even interacted with the book artistically. Business students made posters inspired by the book.

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It wasn’t just students who were involved; the UW-Madison Police department also joined in.

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Madison residents can listen to a chapter of the book everyday on Wisconsin Public Radio.

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Madison Public Library facilitated discussion by distributing discussion kits.

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And a community panel discussion, featuring the Middleton Police Chief and the CEO of Urban League, was held at Middleton Public Library.

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At 7 p.m. Monday night, author Bryan Stevenson came to the UW-Madison campus to speak at Union South in Varsity Hall.

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Students and people from the community formed a long line to hear him speak.

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Before the talk, I asked audience members why they came.

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Stevenson opened the talk with a vision for the future.

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He then laid out four steps for arriving at that future.

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During the event, some audience members used Twitter to state their agreement and enthusiasm.

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After the event, I asked audience members what their biggest takeaway was:

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The talk is available online for those with NetIDs.

Those interested in “Just Mercy” can continue listening to a chapter of the book a day on NPR, check out the Pyle Center’s upcoming human rights conference, or step into a model solitary confinement cell at Madison Public Library.

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To read the original article by Lisa Speckhard click here.

Solitary Confinement Cell at Madison Public Library

A recent Wisconsin State Journal article, “Around Town: Solitary confinement crisis brought home by model cell” by Samara Kalk Derby, profiled the life-size, walk-in model of a solitary confinement cell at the Madison Central Library. At the Library, patrons can walk around the cell and if they want, check out audio of what prisoners in solitary confinement hear, such as moaning, screaming, and other loud noises.

The model cell has been to multiple venues around Madison, including the state Capitol. It’s estimated that 4,000 people have explored the model cell. The cell was brought to the Library to help patrons make connections between this year’s Go Big Read book, Just Mercy, and Wisconsin.

According to information posted outside the cell, between December 2011 and December 2012, Wisconsin placed over 4,000 prisoners in solitary confinement, which was approximately twenty percent of the prison population at the time.

The state Department of Corrections is considering limiting solitary confinement to ninety days. Currently, prisoners can be in solitary for 180 days to an entire year. Although an improvement, ninety days in solitary confinement is still six times the international standard for torture.

The model cell will be on display at Madison Central Library until Thursday, November 12th.

To read “Around Town: Solitary confinement crisis brought home by model cell” click here.

WPR’s “Chapter a Day” Reads Just Mercy

Starting Monday October 19th – Friday November 6th, Lydia Woodland of Wisconsin Public Radio, is reading a chapter of Just Mercy each day as part of the “Chapter a Day” program.  According to the WPR’s website, “Chapter a Day” is WPR’s longest running program. It debuted in 1927. Hosts of the program read a chapter of a book each day. They read entire books in half hour segments.

Listen to “Chapter a Day” by clicking 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.

A Look at Solitary Confinement in the United States

A guard handcuffed a prisoner in his cell in the secured housing unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in California before opening the door. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

A guard handcuffed a prisoner in his cell in the secured housing unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in California before opening the door. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

A recent New York Times article, “Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life,” by Erica Goode, profiles the work of Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, and his work interviewing people who have been in solitary confinement in American prisons. Dr. Haney is the first person to study Americans who have been in solitary confinement for a significant amount of their adult lives.

The study includes interviews with 56 prisoners who spent 10-28 years on solitary confinement. His study offers insight into what long term solitary confinement does to mental health. While conducting interviews Haney was struck with the profound sadness of the inmates and concludes that long term solitary confinement leads to “social death.” He partially attributes what he calls “social death” to inmates in solitary confinement not being allowed to make personal phone calls and not being allowed any physical contact with visitors.

Approximately 75,000 American inmates are currently held in solitary confinement. Goode notes in her article that states are starting to reduce the number of people in solitary confinement due to public opinion, budgetary constraints, and lawsuits.

To read “Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life” click here.

Second Chance Pell Pilot Program for Incarcerated Individuals

Image from: Equal Justice Initiative

Image from: Equal Justice Initiative

At the end of July, the U.S. Department of Education announced that some incarcerated Americans will once again have the opportunity to be eligible for Pell Grants. In 1994 federal student aid for people in prison was cut, despite research that shows that education programs in prisons reduce recidivism rates. According to a 2013 study, funded by the Department of Justice, those who participated in correctional education were 43% less likely to go back to prison after being released for three years, than those who had no correctional education. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program will test ways to help incarcerated individuals receive Pell Grants and pursue secondary education.

For more information, read the press release from the Department of Education here.

To read the Equal Justice Initiative’s post about this click here.

WPR: A Look at the Push for Criminal Justice Reform

President Obama recently became the first president to visit a federal prison while in office. Wisconsin Public Radio host, Joy Cardin, held an interview with Ohio State University law professor, Douglas Berman, to talk about the significance of the president’s visit. During the interview, Berman touched on many of the same issues as Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy. In particular he spoke about inequality in our criminal justice system, what incarceration rates are like in Wisconsin, and why criminal justice reform matters to both Republicans and Democrats.

This is the third in a series of blog posts about issues brought up in the interview.

Part 3: Obama Commutes Sentences for 46 People in Prison for Drug Offenses

As part of this WPR story, Cardin mentioned that Monday July 13th, President Obama announced that he was going to commute the sentences for 46 Americans in prison for drug offenses. A Wisconsin man was one of those chosen to have his sentence commuted. Obama noted that punishments for these individuals did not fit their crimes. For nonviolent drug offenses, many were sentenced to at least 20 years in prison, and 14 were sentenced to life in prison.

President Obama framed this act in terms of second chances by saying: “I believe that at its heart, America is a nation of second chances.” He expressed a similar sentiment in his letters to those whose sentences had been commuted by saying: “I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life for the better. So good luck, and godspeed.”

Watch the video of Obama’s announcement below.

To read a New York Times article about this announcement click here.

To listen to the WPR interview click here.

To read Douglas Berman’s Sentencing and Policy blog click here.

WPR: A Look at the Push for Criminal Justice Reform

President Obama recently became the first president to visit a federal prison while in office. Wisconsin Public Radio host, Joy Cardin, held an interview with Ohio State University law professor, Douglas Berman, to talk about the significance of the president’s visit. During the interview, Berman touched on many of the same issues as Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy. In particular he spoke about inequality in our criminal justice system, what incarceration rates are like in Wisconsin, and why criminal justice reform matters to both Republicans and Democrats.

This is the second in a series of blog posts about issues brought up in the interview.

Part 2: The Wisconsin Connection 

Minority Incarceration Rates by State Image and stats from UW-Milwaukee

Minority Incarceration Rates by State
Image and stats from UW-Milwaukee

Wisconsin’s incarceration rate for minorities is 12.8%, which is approximately double the nation as a whole and more than three percent higher than the next highest state, Oklahoma. Joy Cardin related this information to Berman and asked what might cause Wisconsin’s numbers to be so high. He mentioned the Truth in Sentencing Law and the “war on drugs” as possibilities.

As Berman explained, the Truth in Sentencing Law was proposed with equality in mind. The idea being that it would stop racial bias in deciding who would be granted parole. Statistics showed that white offenders were being granted parole in higher numbers than minority offenders. With the Truth in Sentencing Law the sentence given would be the sentence served. This way all offenders would be treated equally. However, Berman further explained, that the law just shifted the inequality from who was granted parole to the actual sentencing. The rules attached to the law are complicated. To receive a shorter sentence, it is almost necessary to have a skilled, invested lawyer. Defendants who cannot afford the kind of legal help necessary receive longer sentences. They receive longer sentences not because they have committed a worse crime, but because the are less equipped in the court room.

Similarly he explained, the “war on drugs,” particularly the minimum sentencing laws related to crack cocaine, has disproportionately put African Americans behind bars. Berman said that the ratio is 9:1 for African Americans who are brought in to federal court for crack offenses.

To read an NPR article about Wisconsin’s incarceration of minorities click here.

To listen to the WPR interview click here.

To read Douglas Berman’s Sentencing and Policy blog click here.

WPR: A Look at the Push for Criminal Justice Reform

President Obama recently became the first president to visit a federal prison while in office. Wisconsin Public Radio host, Joy Cardin, held an interview with Ohio State University law professor, Douglas Berman, to talk about the significance of the president’s visit. During the interview, Berman touched on many of the same issues as Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy. In particular he spoke about inequality in our criminal justice system, what incarceration rates are like in Wisconsin, and why criminal justice reform matters to both Republicans and Democrats.

This is the first in a series of blog posts about issues brought up in the interview.

Part 1: Obama Visits a Federal Prison

El Reno Correctional Institution, Photo: Federal Bureau of Prisons

El Reno Correctional Institution, Photo: Federal Bureau of Prisons

With his remaining time in office, President Obama is working to improve the criminal justice system. On Thursday July 16th, he visited a federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma. During the visit he met with six inmates. In addition to traveling to Oklahoma to talk about criminal justice reform, President Obama also stopped in  Philadelphia to speak at an NAACP conference. At he conference he expressed his concern for the number of Americans in prison and how much it is costing the country. He said: “We have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and to rehabilitate individuals.”

During his radio interview, Berman praised Obama for paying attention to this issue, as he feels that it is overdue. While he praised Obama for his efforts to make the criminal justice system more fair for the over-represented African Americans and Latinos in prison, Berman is hoping the president also works to correct the socioeconomic inequality, as poor people are also over-represented in prison.

Much of what Berman talks about in this interview is how criminal justice reform is being championed by both Democrats and Republicans. He explained Democrats have been connected to the issue because of their concern with racial disparities and mass incarceration. However in recent years more Republicans are expressing concerns about the racial disparities and how much mass incarceration costs taxpayers, particularly without much taxpayer benefit.

To read an NPR article about the president’s visit to the federal prison click here.

To listen to the WPR interview click here.

To read Douglas Berman’s Sentencing and Policy blog click here.

Understanding the Legacy of Racial Injustice

This week, on July 7th, the Equal Justice Initiative released an animated film Slavery to Mass Incarceration. The film is narrated by Just Mercy author Bryan Stevenson and features art from Molly Crabapple. In just under six minutes Stevenson and Crabapple tell the story of how the enslavement of African people has evolved to mass incarceration of African Americans today. The film points out that an African American person is six times more likely to be sentenced to prison for the same crime as a white person. And that one in three black men born today can expect to spend some time in prison. With this film EJI hopes to engage people in the conversation about this injustice in the United States and help move the country forward.

Slavery to Mass Incarceration was created as a part of Equal Justice Initiative’s Race and Poverty Project. As EJI explains, the Race and Poverty project “explores racial history and uses innovative teaching tools to deepen our understanding of the legacy of racial injustice.”

Watch the film below.

To read more about EJI’s Race and Poverty Project click here.