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April 22, 2005

Justice as if It Mattered

Following in the footsteps of my fellow blogger, Mark Schmitt, I guest lectured on Wednesday with the Bard Prison Initiative, one of the few remaining college education programs left in prisons around the country.

The dozen students were, as Mark noted, some of the most amazingly engaged students a teacher could want-- having carefully read the text for my lecture, my piece on Reconstruction and the historic role of the courts in rolling back civil rights. (We even had a discussion about the differences in views between Mark and myself on the filibuster.) From questions of the history of Klan terrorism in subverting the 15th Amendment and the role of judicial review in our constitutional structure, we were on to even tougher issues of the relevance of historical knowledge in influencing contemporary debate, how political activists can be both honest scholars and pragmatic propagandists, and how one builds a community of political and scholarly trust to know what is truth on which to base one's own actions.

The last issue of community may be the toughest issue for prisoners cut adrift from normal institutions and confined to our brutal and arbitrary prison system, where power, not truth, is the rule of their lives. But what is amazing about the Bard Prison Inititive is that, beyond giving the students a useful degree for when they leave prison, it is creating that intellectual community among the prisoners and, by bringing in teachers and volunteer students, extending their community to a Bard campus a few miles away.

Who is included in the words "community" was very much on the students minds as we discussed Reconstruction -- the radical attempt to redefine the national community to include the newly freed slaves in the national political community -- with its obvious parallels to prisoners struggling with the fact that they lack the vote and will be excluded from the American political community even when released on parole.

The Bard program recognizes the reality that our society cannot be sustained if we don't reintegrate prisoners back into our communities, politically, economically and intellectually. America is mostly in denial on this reality through its range of punitive felony disenfranchisment laws and other lifetime economic sanctions against those convicted of felonies, but with 650,000 people leaving prisons each year, the need to reintegrate ex-prisoners into our communities is a pressing need.

The Bard Prison Initiative is a small start but we can hope it becomes a model for national reform. From the engaged intelligence of the students in the room in my class, it will be society's loss as well if we fail in that rebuilding of our national community.

Posted by Nathan at April 22, 2005 07:54 AM