By JEFFREY STANLEY
Students at Brooklyn Friends School in Natania Kremer‘s Service and Justice Seminar participated in a pen pal program with a California prison inmate and joined with him in creating Power, Love, Education and Justice for Liberation.
“I really enjoyed writing to Mume this semester. I think it is a valuable experience to have this interaction with people who have had experiences that we have not. I found it very interesting to know what experiences Mume had in solitary confinement, and following his story. I remember hearing when he was offered the opportunity to get out of solitary confinement and go to a regular prison, and reflecting on my emotions when I found this out.”
“I learned a lot about what we as citizens are being told about the justice system, versus what I learned about the truth of the justice system. Through Mume’s letters, I learned about the psychological punishment that is solitary confinement…Everyone, especially kids, should know from early on the injustice in the justice system in order to grow up and try to reform it.”
“He inspired me because he made me realize that if he can achieve great things inside prison, I can do so many things out in the world, and especially in my school. Mume has been in prison in California since 1976. His background that he grew up in is similar to many other young men that are incarcerated. He was innocent of the crime that he was convicted for. One extraordinary event that Mume initiated was the Hunger Strike in Pelican Bay Prison. This event happened July 8, 2013, where over 30,000 prisoners in California prisons initiated a hunger strike because of the unfairness, injustice, and uncooperativeness from higher officials in and out the prison system. The strike lasted about 60 days and it was successful because their demands were complied with and the legislators agreed to hold public hearings so their concerns could be voiced.”
The sampling of student comments in the PLEJ brochure tells most of the story, but not all of it. The acronym itself, standing for Power, Love, Education, and Justice, is a creation of BFS upper school sudents, their prison pen pal Mume, Human Rights Pen Pal Program founder Sharon Martinas, and BFS Director of Service Learning Natania Kremer.
“It’s a new program that we created based on the experience that my students had this past school year,” said Natania of her Service and Justice Seminar. PLEJ operates under the aegis of the Human Rights Pen Pal Program, a California initiative to link inmates with high school students via letters. “The goal of this project is to create a justice-oriented, people-centered curriculum about the prison system for teenaged youth and young adults,” explained Natania.
The Human Rights Pen Pal Program linked Natania’s students (who are now juniors) to Mume, aka Paul A. Redd, Jr., a California prison inmate who spent years in solitary confinement, became a “jailhouse lawyer,” and led a landmark inmate hunger strike. “My students identified criminal injustice as the issue they wanted to explore and better understand,” said Natania. “The opportunity to connect and correspond with Mume was incredibly powerful.”
The project started last fall after Natania’s sophomore students selected “criminal justice” as the social justice issue they wanted to explore in her seminar. They spent the semester in the investigation and preparation phase, and took action through the pen pal program in the spring. Natania facilitated the exchange of letters, drawing, poetry, and questions.
“Mume thoughtfully and generously wrote back to each of us,” she said. His frank responses inspired the students to create a “think tank” at BFS, which in turn led to the creation of workshops to raise student awareness of solitary confinement, police stop and frisk programs, prison labor, juvenile justice, and LGBTQ rights in prisons.Student readings throughout the year included Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and contemporary news articles about solitary confinement policy changes in New York State, the exoneration of the five wrongly imprisoned men in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, and the untold stories that inspired the hit prison drama Orange is the New Black.
Guest speakers from in and outside the school spoke to the students. Inspired by their experiences with Mume, they reached out to inmates closer to home by making and sending holiday cards to inmates at Sing Sing (Ossining State Prison) in upstate New York.Natania and her students also created a brochure, PLEJ for Liberation, summarizing and reflecting on their experiences.
The brochure has been distributed to teachers nationwide and was presented at the Teachers for Social Justice Conference in San Francisco in October of 2014, the National Association of Independent Schools Conference in February of 2015, and will be presented by BFS students at the New York Collective of Radical Educators Conference in March of 2015.
STUDENT REFLECTIONS ON THE CONFERENCE
Grace: We “had been planning to present at the NYCORE conference for several months. March 21st was the conference and we had written pages of notes and created a long slide show. When we got to the James Baldwin School Abby and I lay down a 6ft x 8ft box of tape on the floor to present the size of a solitary confinement cell. From 3:30 to 5pm we talked about the misconceptions about prisons, realities of racial and sexual discrimination in the justice system, cruelty of solitary confinement and the prison-to-school pipeline. I talked about the stereotypes in the media and how our perspectives are affected by Hollywood. After our presentation a bunch of college students came up to us to tell us how impressed they were and how much they learned from our presentation. They told us that they are interested in pursuing communicating with inmates like we did and were going to try to arrange a program with their schools. I didn’t expect our presentation to inspire many people but I felt like I made at least a small change.
Sierra: A group of five girls, including myself led a workshop about a program which combated the injustices in practices of solitary confinement in the prison industrial complex. The goal of this workshop is to bring awareness surrounding solitary confinement its damages toward the individual. Another goal is to inspire others to take action against this injustice by involving in the pen-pal program with people in solitary confinement… For this day, we had to prepare a presentation and we each had a topic that we will cover. We had all gone over our individual parts and planned on assisting each other throughout the presentation. We prepared discussions and had multiple questions to interact with the audience with. We presented our topic and were able to receive positive feedback regarding our presentation.
Jade: Presenting at the NYCoRE Conference was a rewarding experience for me. Working together with my peers to bring light onto issues in our society that are personal to us was the best experience to embark on. I was nervous at first to present because I wanted everything to work out how we planned it to and I didn’t want to let my peers down if I messed up. Natania has helped me so much in gaining knowledge on social justice issues through our 10th Grade Seminar class and continues to help me in my junior year, and she encourages me to take action to help solve problems that I am passionate about. Having her there and adults, such as Jesse Phillips-Fein and Orinthia Swindell as a support system calmed my nerves and I became more comfortable to speak. Having a safe environment and being comfortable is something that is important to me and my performance, which was definitely created through the adults there and my peers. I was proud to have shared all that we have done, especially when I shared a painting that one of my peers had drawn for our LGBTQ Awareness workshop during Global Youth Service Day last year. We put in a lot of work and time into preparing for the workshop. I am glad to have had the opportunity to present at this conference and it has given me the strength to want to do even bigger and better things in the future relating to social justice.
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