by Jillian Atelsek
On the other end of the phone line in Stamp Student Union Thursday night was a man named Kenny Collins, calling from the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, MD. A roomful of students were in attendance for the “Free Kenny Collins” event.
Collins has been imprisoned in Maryland for 30 years, including 17 years on death row — charged with the 1986 murder of Wayne Breeden — but he maintains his innocence to this day.
In addition to listening to remarks from Collins himself, the students heard from other guest speakers and discussed issues of mass incarceration, capital punishment, racism and social justice.
Laura Lising, a social activist and one of the main organizers of the event, has been leading the movement both to free Collins and to end the era of mass incarceration for many years.
“Kenny and I are both activists, and that’s how we became friends,” Lising said. “He’s like a brother to me.”
She told the audience stories of Collins counseling fellow inmates, writing poetry and creating art, and singing songs to her young daughter when the pair visited him in prison, describing him as a “sweetheart.”
Collins’ relationship with UMD is nothing new. Since 1998, he has been speaking on the phone, often to crowds with hundreds of people, as a part of “Live from Death Row” — a series that was extremely instrumental in the eventual abolition of the death penalty in Maryland.
According to Lising, “Kenny’s case is emblematic of every single problem” that exists within the American criminal justice system, as the history of his legal battle is complicated and involves many allegations of racial bias within the court system.
Supporters of the “Free Kenny Collins” movement claim that Collins’ lawyer was ineffective, that the judge of his case did not follow constitutional protocol, and that the eyewitnesses responsible for his conviction were unreliable. That last piece, Lising and others say, is especially troubling, because Collins’ conviction is not backed by any physical evidence, such as DNA or fingerprints, but rather, rests entirely on eyewitness testimony.
Senior sociology major Al’Aisa Watson was given a flyer for the event in her African-American Studies class and was inspired to attend.
“It really struck me how much of an impact mass incarceration has on black communities,” Watson said, “so I wanted to come down and get more information about the case.”
On the phone, Collins expressed his gratitude to the students who attended the event and got involved in the fight for his release from prison.
“Y’all can be my voice,” he told them.
Collins also said that he wants to “not only [prove] my complete innocence, but to also expose all parties involved” in the mishandling of his trial.
Shujaa Graham was another speaker at the event. Graham was framed for the murder of a prison guard, and consequently spent nine years in prison, seven of which were on death row. He was exonerated in 1981, and now speaks frequently about issues regarding the criminal justice system.
“I’m not here because of the system, but in spite of the system.” Graham told the audience. “I’m not here because of the will of any God, I’m here because individuals like yourselves decided to go out and organize.”
There did not seem to be any shortage of incentive to organize at the event. Several common themes ran throughout the entire panel and were repeatedly discussed by students with intensity and passion. Students were in agreement that it is necessary to spread awareness of racial bias within the prison system, encouraging the university to divest from prison labor stand in solidarity with communities of color, who are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration.
According to the Maryland Division of Corrections, 72 percent of inmates in Maryland prisons are black, even though the demographic only accounts for 29.4 percent of the total population of the state.
Statistics like these are thrown around often, but campaigns like “Free Kenny Collins” aim to put a face to the numbers and show the real human consequences of such issues.
Before an automated female voice cut into the call and warned that Collins only had 30 seconds left, students were able to walk to the front of the room, take the phone, express their support, and ask Collins questions about his time in prison.
“It’s been very hard, not only on myself, but on my family,” Collins said to the group of the past 30 years. He has only been able to have marginal contact with his parents. Still, he remains optimistic, working from within the system as an activist against racial bias and poor prison conditions.
“I keep giving,” he said. “I don’t want to be idle. I have to create a life, a world, for myself that’s productive.”