Tracing the Violence: Sixth annual SPEAR conference examines carceral reform

Friday, Apr 19, 2019
by Ben Gelman ’22, Pace Center Student Correspondent

“It’s about having bigger goals, which are not just about cutting the incarceration rate, but dismantling the carceral state,” said Dr. Marie Gottschalk, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. “What's gonna dismantle it is not just one thing.” Dr. Gottschalk gave a talk on “Race, Crime, and Punishment: Ten Things Everyone Should Know about Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice Reform,” at the sixth annual Students for Prison and Education Reform (SPEAR) Conference at Princeton University. The conference, titled “Tracing the Violence,” aimed to assess the mainstream criminal justice reform movement’s tendency to focus on non-violent and drug offenses, often excluding those convicted of violent and sexual offenses from the movement. 

SPEAR is a student organization with the Pace Center for Civic Engagement that educates and advocates against the carceral state, or prison system, on Princeton’s campus, in New Jersey, and beyond. Founded in 2012, SPEAR engages in anti-carceral campus activism, legislative advocacy, community education, and direct engagement with currently and formerly incarcerated peers.

The conference was held on April 12 and 13, with an opening keynote given by Michelle Jones, a doctoral candidate in American Studies at New York University. This was followed by a screening of “Free Men” a documentary by activist and current death row incarceree of 25 years Kenneth Reams, followed by a call with Reams and a debrief featuring his wife, Isabelle Ize Reams, who came to the conference from Paris, France.

Dr. Gottschalk’s talk opened a Saturday filled with different lectures and workshops all centered around the question of “what about violent crime?” This question, often leveled at prison reform and abolition advocates as a challenge to positions, was addressed throughout the conference in a variety of different ways. A panel discussion titled “Abolitionist Organizing and Violent Crime” featured Kelly M. Hayes, social media manager of Truthout, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to providing independent reporting and commentary on a diverse range of social justice issues, and co-founder of The Chicago Light Brigade, a network of community organizers; Donna Hylton, a founding member of From Life to Life, a national initiative dedicated to dismantling the prison industrial complex; and Lena Palacios, assistant professor in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The discussion was moderated by Professor Ruha Benjamin of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton.


The sixth annual SPEAR conference gathered leading organizers and experts on the carceral state to address violence and the carceral state and the importance of an inclusive and transformative justice movement. Photo courtesy of SPEAR

Hylton spoke in detail about her experiences with the criminal justice system, and how she took note of the lack of concern for her background and circumstances that contributed to her situation. “In my sentencing, nobody asked me who I was..nobody asked me ‘how did you get here?’” Professor Palacios described to the audience how it was necessary to “challenge the dichotomies of the carceral setter state … innocent or guilty, good people or bad people.” We must “dismantle the social value that dictates who does and does not matter” she said. Hayes, while speaking about the question of how to treat violent offenders, declared that “We should not be governed according to our fears and our resentment.” She went on to discuss the need to “create the structures so that the need for violence isn't there anymore..then we would have less violence to contend with.”

Other events included another panel called “Gender-Based Violence and Anti-Carceral Feminism.” SPEAR co-president Masha Miura ’21 characterized this discussion as “a prime example of how a carceral framework dominates our sociological imaginations. It was really interesting to confront the fact that even when dealing with those who ‘we do not necessarily feel transformative towards,’ ... it is important to still apply non-carceral forms of justice ... as once we decide that someone is incapable of doing so, we can excuse any action we take against them.” There were also several workshop-style activities that discussed divestment, restorative justice, and political prisoners among other topics. These workshops aimed to teach participants organizing skills and philosophies necessary to advocate for political change.


SPEAR attendees and panelists. Photo courtesy of SPEAR

Fellow SPEAR co-president, Amanda Eisenhour ’21, also noted how the conference enabled the participants to have important debates and conversations necessary for effective advocacy. “It brought together incredible organizers, academics, and students to share truly radical and inspiring ideas,” she said. “The organizers, all undergraduates, did an incredible job of centering the perspectives of directly impacted people and building spaces for debate and discussion that broached incredibly difficult topics in thoughtful and sensitive ways.”

The event concluded with a closing plenary led by activist James Kilgore, who emphasized the need for strong community organizing at the political level in order to achieve change. “We must push for alternatives to incarceration ... and build the independent voice and political power of formerly incarcerated people in our community” he said. Referring to the organization of the carceral state, he stated that “The only way to counter an organized force is with an organized force.”

The 2019 conference was sponsored by: Campus Conversations on Identities, Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, Department of Spanish & Portuguese, Department of American Studies, LGBT Center, the Anthropology Department, Lewis Center for the Arts, the Program in Law and Public Affairs, the Humanities Council, Department of African American Studies, Princeton Progressives, The Petey Greene Program, Pace Center for Civic Engagement, and the Princeton Public Library.