Northeast campuses host students' protest against solitary confinement in prisons
By: Katy Rushlau
Read full article at USA Today.
Just after 8 a.m. on Wednesday Oct. 15, Marlo Kalb sat on the brick walkway along the George Sherman Union Plaza on Boston University’s main campus. Duct tape outlined a seven-inch by nine-inch box on the ground in front of a park bench, a large oak tree shading the space from the morning sun.
Kalb, a junior, sat in the middle of the box. She hugged her knees to her chest as she stared blankly at the busyness around her.
“Stop solitary confinement,” read in bold, black letters on a hand-written sign taped to the ground next to Kalb.
From 8 p.m. on Oct. 14 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 15, campuses around the Northeast participated in 7×9, a performance arts vigil rallying against solitary confinement in American prison systems. Participating campuses included Harvard University, Princeton University, Brandeis University, Suffolk University, Boston University and Rutgers University.
Baptiste Fassin, a senior at the College of Arts and Sciences in Boston participating in 7×9. (Photo courtesy Rosa Otieno)
The colleges involved have students belonging to Student Alliance for Prison Reform, a network of students across 10 universities working to improve prison systems, according to Eva Shang, the alliance’s founder, and sophomore at Harvard.
Rotating every half hour for 23 hours, students on each campus occupied a seven-inch by nine-inch space marked out in a prominent location, such as the box on Boston University’s campus. In keeping with the restrictions of people in solitary confinement, Shang says, they had no access to books, music or other forms of entertainment. They were also not allowed to interact with the outside world.
“The goal is to start a conversation on college campuses about prison reform,” Shang said. “We hope to motivate students to take action to reduce the use of these practices in prison facilities.”
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The dimensions of the exhibits were meant to reflect the dimensions of a solitary confinement cell. The duration of the performance—23 hours—pays homage to the amount of daily time prisoners typically spend in their cell.
Some groups, such as BU Students For Prison Reform, had students sit inside the cells. Other schools, such as Harvard, had students sit outside the cells. Shang says sitting inside symbolizes solidarity, while sitting outside symbolizes our place as outsiders.
During the day, the exhibits drew the attention of passing pedestrians, Shang says. At night, the exhibit served as a vigil for the human rights violations, which Shang said are prevalent in most prison systems.
“Passersby are faced with the challenge of deciding whether to walk through the space or walk around it, to stop and read the sign and to interact with the exhibit or to simply ignore it,” Shang says.
The 7×9 event started last November at Princeton University, according to senior Brett Diehl, who is currently the president of the college’s group, Students for Prison Education and Reform. College students, he says, are making an impact by bringing awareness to the issues, but also by supporting inmates and those impacted by the prison system.
For example, groups within the Student Alliance for Prison Reform are also working on expanding its Admissions Opportunity Campaign, which would give formerly incarcerated individuals more freedom to apply to universities. Other campus programs connect students with inmates through tutoring programs and fundraisers. Conferences and trainings are held throughout the year to promote humane treatment of inmates and teach safe practices.
As part of their 7×9 event, Diehl said they hosted a panel discussion with three people who are currently incarcerated. To mark the end of the event, on Wednesday night, Princeton welcomed Sarah Shourd, one of the three American hikers imprisoned as political hostages in Iran in 2009-2010.