By Brian Abate
Members of UMD’s Prison Resistance Project spoke to a crowd of students about injustices faced by people in Maryland and throughout the United States because of prison industrial complex systems.
Aging People in Prison Human Rights Campaign members also spoke out against current policies. People who had been helped by the program gave firsthand accounts of their experiences in prison.
One leader spoke out against Maryland Correctional Enterprises (MCE), an organization that sends prisoners to work, usually to build furniture. MCE says their mission is to provide structured employment and training activities for offenders in order to improve employability upon release.
“Maryland Correctional Enterprises exploits prisoners for the use of cheap labor, and a lot of schools like the University of Maryland are required to buy goods from MCE,” said Zoey Warecki, a graduate student who helped organize the event. She said there was no actual hard data that proved MCE was helping people. Some students in attendance agreed.
“It’s a vicious cycle where people are sent to prison, taken advantage of, and then not given opportunities when they get out, which makes it more likely for them to end up back in prison,” said Mia Carmel, a junior economics and public policy major.
Tyronne Morton talked about his experience in prison and compared the system to a modern form of slavery.
“American prisons started to rise after the Civil War,” said Morton, who went back to school after prison at Bowie State University. “there’s surveillance all over back neighborhoods, young kids get arrested and they’re forced to work. It’s about control of black bodies. The system seems like it’s actually changing but it’s really just adapting to modern times.”
William Gardner, who also spent time in prison talked about his perspective on life in prison.
“I was sent to prison in 1968,” said Gardner, who spent more than 40 years in prison. “Everyone worked. Everyone had to do something, but at the time there was rehabilitation and punishment. The longer I was there, the less rehabilitation there was. By the time I got out it was pretty much just punishment.”
Gardner was sentenced to life in prison on a murder charge when he was 16 years-old.
“Maryland has the second most juveniles sentenced to life of any state,” Gardner said.
Gardner was released when Barack Obama shortened sentences for thousands of prisoners. He earned his GED and got married while in prison. Two wardens recommended his release.
Members of the Prison Resistance project to try to help people in similar scenarios to Morton and Gardner. They are currently working on the Free Kenny Collins campaign. Collins has been in Maryland prison for over 30 years, including 17 years on death row. No physical evidence linked Collins to the crime he is imprisoned for. He spoke at the event over the phone.
“Even though this is an unfair situation, you can’t let yourself get down, you have to keep fighting,” said Collins. “I appreciate what you [members of the Prison Resistance project] are doing, and I haven’t lost hope.”
Gardner and Morton believe they are proof that if given another chance, people who have been in prison can make a positive impact on society.
“Society doesn’t owe me anything and I want to give back,” said Morton. “That’s why I’m here today.”
Gardner agreed and said he hoped more people would attend future prison resistance events.
“I’m a very different person than I was when I was 16-years-old,” he said.